Sometimes you go into a movie with fairly high expectations, and based on previous work, you feel pretty good about those expectations being met. And sometimes, even expecting something good, your expectations are blown out of the water and you walk away from something great. Such is the case with Hunt for the Wilderpeople, the fourth feature film from New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi. Based on his earlier films, such as Top 10’er What We Do in the Shadows and Boy, and his work with Flight of the Conchords, it’s reasonable to expect good things from Waititi. And his latest film, Hunt of for the Wilderpeople, looked charming from the beginning. But Wilderpeople isn’t just charming or good—it’s a legitimately great film.
Adapted by Waititi from Barry Crump’s novel Wild Pork and Watercress, Wilderpeople centers on Ricky Baker, a troubled Maori youth in New Zealand, packed off to a remote farm as his last stop before juvie. Of course, what passes as “troubled” in Ricky’s case is mostly just standard kid stuff—his rap sheet includes “kicking stuff, knocking stuff over, and spitting”. The real trouble with Ricky is that he has no family and no one seems to want him. Enter Bella and Hec, the couple who live on that remote farm. She’s warm and welcoming, motherly but not smothering, and he’s a grumpy old coot who barely speaks. Ricky, at long last, has a family. And then Bella dies.
In a lesser writer’s hands, Ricky’s abandoned childhood and his relationship with Bella, who he calls “Auntie”, could be saccharine tear-jerker tripe. But Waititi hits emotional notes so pure and indelible he doesn’t need to dwell. Ten seconds of Hec wailing over Bella’s body is all we need to understand exactly how adrift he is without his wife. And Ricky’s beaming face as he hugs his new dog tells us he’s never gotten a present before. Economy of storytelling is one thing, but this economy of emotion allows Waititi to pivot easily between the myriad emotions of “processing”, as Ricky calls grieving in therapy-speak, without it ever feeling like he’s manipulating the audience.
Following Bella’s death, an accident strands Ricky and Hec in the bush, and the authorities mistake their absence as a kidnapping. Hec has a prison record, so the two go on the lam, ostensibly to keep Hec out of jail, but Ricky isn’t anxious to give up the vestiges of family, either. Much of the movie is a two-hander between Sam Neill as Hec and Julian Dennison as Ricky, and they’re simply wonderful together. Neill hasn’t been this good since who knows when—ever? This is a really tremendous performance—and Dennison is a delightful young actor, who feels completely authentic as Ricky.
Waititi makes the most of the backwoods New Zealand setting, and there are some gorgeous visuals and landscapes lensed by Lachlan Milne—made for just over $14 million, Wilderpeople looks like a film that easily cost three times that. He also reunites his Boy scoring team of Lukasz Pawel Buda, Samuel Scott, and Conrad Wedde for a stand-out score that is best described as “vacation travelogue-inspired”. This isn’t a particularly quirky film, or anywhere near as stylized as a Wes Anderson film, but it does have elements of that, with Waititi’s distinctive comedy cuts in the editing (carried out by Tom Eagles, Yana Gorskaya, and Luke Haigh), and that punchy score.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a film about families made not born, and grief and “processing”, but it’s not particularly sentimental. Neither the characters nor the film invite pity for objectively harsh circumstances, and though Hec and Ricky are characters literally running from grief, Wilderpeople has a big, hopeful heart. Hec can be mean and Ricky spiteful, and the film touches on some truly horrific things in Ricky’s past which he himself barely seems to understand, but there’s a constant trickle of kindness to balance out the darkness. For a movie about people lost in the woods, Hunt for the Wilderpeople never loses its own way. This is simply a must-see film.
(Lainey PS. The movie is rating 100% on Rotten Tomatoes at post time.)
Sad Animal Warning: be warned.