Hunt for the Wilderpeople

2016 | NZ | Directed by Taika Waititi

Logline: A manhunt begins after a juvenile delinquent, pursued by his disgruntled foster uncle, embarks on a troublesome bushland escapade.

For his fourth feature the talented Kiwi filmmaker returns to the endearing narrative perspective of a young, cheeky Maori boy, just as he did in the acclaimed coming-of-age Boy (2010). This time it’s a broader comedic tale of shenanigans and misadventure, as Ricky (Julian Dennison), a rebellious young teenage boy, is sent to live with an eccentric foster aunt, Bella (Rima Te Waita), and her grumpy partner Hec (Sam Neill) on a farm. Fate intervenes and Ricky and Hec find themselves at the pointy end of a manhunt when a gung-ho child service social worker, Paula (Rachel House) decides the unhinged uncle has abducted the young runabout. Much hilarity ensues. 

Based on the cult yarn Wild Pork and Watercress by the late Barry Crump, a legendary Kiwi author, who wrote a bunch of semi-autobiographical novels based on his experiences as a no-nonsense man of the bush, the adaptation is seemingly set in a hybrid time, partially the late 80s (when the books was first published) and partially the present, a kind of no man’s time. It fits rather snugly. Waititi’s screenplay enables him to wax lyrical with Crump’s wilderness verse and yet still fashion what feels like an original narrative. It’s a wonderful not-quite-coming-of-age story that settles into a grand love of New Zealand’s rural geography, or, the bush, as we Kiwis affectionately call it. 

In the midst of Ricky’s grand adventure he is taking time out and watching television and sees a nature documentary featuring herds of wildebeest. Later, whilst trying to explain their own plight to Uncle Hec he references the nomadic beasts, naming Hec and he “wilderpeople”. This moment of quirky, poignant humour perfectly encapsulates the whole movie, and it is a signature Waititi moment too. 

The casting is choice, especially Julian Dennison, the nuances of his performance are superb. He plays perfectly against Sam Neill’s surly Hec, a farmer who just wanted to be left alone. And it’s alone they are. Together. Neill delivers one of the best performances of his career, in fact I’d go so far as saying it’s my favourite Neill role (after The Piano and Possession). I was actually reminded of my own late father, another Kiwi actor, in a few scenes, so it certainly tapped into something personal for me. Big props, also, to Sam Scott’s outfit Moniker for the fantastic score. 

Hunt for the Wilderpeople cleverly balances the joy of awkwardness and the clumsiness of being happy. There is a cheekiness, a naughtiness, combined with an innocence, an unpretentiousness that is innately New Zealand, and hard to put your finger on, unless you are a Kiwi yourself. In just four features, and a bunch of shorts, Waititi has nailed himself into the very grain of what it is to be native Kiwi, with all its virtues and foibles. It’s like Waititi is in a school playground with us, playing silly buggers, and we might end up having to stay in, maybe write lines, but who cares!

Among many funny and endearing moments (Waititi’s cameo as a preacher is priceless), two that keep coming back to me are Ricky catching the classic NZ Flake chocolate ad on television, and after Ricky and Hec crash through the bush in the borrowed Toyota LandCruiser - mimicking the classic television ad that featured Barry Crump and Lloyd “Scotty” Scott - they career over the top of a road as a hapless tourist, played by Lloyd Scott, is looking the other way. Gold. 

It’s hard not to be affected by all the hype. The movie has done gangbusters in the homeland, becoming the highest-grossing weekend opener and first week grosser for a Kiwi movie in New Zealand history. It’s going to become another Goodbye Pork Pie, loved the world over, Ricky will become a national treasure, Uncle Hec will have his own stamp, and Waititi will go on to direct a Hollywood superhero movie. Oh wait, hang on, that last part is already happening! Chur, bro!