Hunt for the Wilderpeople seems like a simple, predictable story. Troubled foster kid Ricky (Julian Dennison) finally gets placed with a good family. Things seem to be going well with his new foster mom Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and grumpy “Don’t call me Uncle” Hec (Sam Neill)—at least, until the state decides to take him back. Frustrated with his situation and seeing no other options, Ricky runs away into the stunning New Zealand bush, and Hec goes after him to return him to child services.
Things get even more complicated when Hec and Ricky are branded fugitives by the state, after which the two decide to stick it out even longer in the wilderness, together, despite their somewhat rocky start. They quickly become the focus of a five month long manhunt spearheaded by the maniacal social services worker responsible for Ricky. Hec’s survival skills keep Ricky and his dog, Tupac, alive and well as they move across the beautiful terrain. There is a small recurring cast of characters, including some bush adventurers that have a knack for showing up in the wrong place at the wrong time, to great comedic effect. At one memorable point, Ricky and Hec take refuge with a thoroughly paranoid hermit who gives them colanders to put on their heads so the government won’t get into their brains.
These comedic moments are underscored by the characters. Hec is, somewhat predictably, good natured under all the gruff exterior, but also wiley and willing to break the law left and right to accompany his new foster son into the bush. Ricky is a hilarious kid with none of the typical brooding-troubled-teen vibe that typically shows up in foster tales. Julian Dennison nails a type of candor and humor that makes Ricky feel believable and gives him so much charisma that you’re rooting for him from the start. There is no huge warm-hearted moment in the middle of the film where Ricky and Hec become BFFs, but there is mutual trust, respect, and understanding. Each character has their moments of hovering just on the edge of being a parody of themselves, but they never tip over into farce, which gives us the right mix of buoyancy and genuine emotion. This is a truly smart comedy.
Beyond the comedic characters, the cinematography aids the fresh, comedic feel of this film. Sweeping shots allow you to enjoy the New Zealand countryside, where the colors are crisp and vivid and the dialogue has plenty of room to breathe. The clean visual appeal of the film and the heartwarming but hilarious storyline make for an overall enjoyable experience. The electronic soundtrack did fall completely by the wayside for me, but there is also something to be said about a film that doesn’t need a dramatic swell to kick the audience into feeling joy, heartbreak, or humor.
This film was never quite what I expected it to be, but every surprise turn was punctuated by dynamic action, and usually also by a hilarious slip up by Ricky. At my showing of Hunt for the Wilderpeople, there were more than a couple of moments that had everyone in the theatre, including me, laughing out loud. Actually, I entered Images in a rotten mood and left with a smile on my face—that’s a sure sign of powerful cinema and the best endorsement I could give.
— Lauren Christiansen