This film has its heart in the right place, and that goes a long way toward making a conventional story enjoyable.
Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a juvenile delinquent. He hasn’t done anything terrible, but a long list of minor crimes (vandalism, shoplifting, and the like) coupled with a sullen demeanor and a general inclination to broadcast defiance around authority figures has led his social worker, Paula (Rachel House) to condemn him as a “bad egg.” He’s been through a series of foster homes and is one step away from being sent to the child version of prison. We don’t know the details of his background, but it seems that he’s never had a normal home life, and acting out is his way of defending himself against a world he has never learned to trust.
Ricky’s last hope is to get along with an eccentric farm couple, kindly Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and gruff Hector (Sam Neill). It doesn’t seem like an obvious match—Ricky is a city kid raised on American pop culture, and he looks like he’s never done a day’s work in his life—but Bella sees something of herself in his troubled life, and through a combination of kindness and wisdom starts the process of cracking his shell. Then she abruptly drops dead, and Hector has neither the interest nor the inclination to care for a difficult adolescent, so it looks like Ricky is headed to juvy after all.
Rather than take his chances with the juvenile justice system, Ricky takes off into the woods with his dog, Tupac (Ricky sees himself as a gangsta, although he’s really more of a marshmallow). He doesn’t get far before Hec tracks him down, meaning to return the boy to civilization, but then he breaks his foot and they have to camp out until it heals. In the meantime, they become labeled fugitives from justice, and the story seemingly becomes national news. And, of course, the two misfits come to understand and appreciate each other, with the greatest transformation occurring in our young antihero.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople treads on such familiar ground that it’s a miracle it works as well as it does. It helps that the writing is sharp, the principal actors winning, and the scenery beautiful (well, this is a New Zealand film). The story is divided into chapters (it’s based on the 1986 comic novel Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump), announced by screen cards, which makes the episodic nature of the story, and the sometimes implausible nature of some of Ricky and Hec’s adventures, easier to take. Watching this film is like listening to a series of tales told by your beloved grandpa, who did have a lot of adventures in his life, but is inclined to embellish them in the telling if it makes the story better.
Director/screenwriter Taika Waititi seems to share his young protagonist’s automatic disdain for authority figures. This results in some heavy-handed humor, particularly in the portrayal of Paula (who pursues Ricky with the persistence of Inspector Javert) and her colleague Andy (Oscar Nightley). Hunt for the Wilderpeople also spends too much time with a group of hunters who are clearly descended from the rednecks hunting kangaroo in Crocodile Dundee. But for the most part, this film has its heart in the right place, and that goes a long way toward making a conventional story enjoyable. | Sarah Boslaugh