Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Taika Waititi's latest film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, was in limited release in the U.S. on June 24th, 2016. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and is possibly one of my favorite films from this year.

The plot itself is at once simple and wildly imaginative. There is a lurking thought in the back of my mind that none of this could possibly be happening, and yet I toss that all aside in order to enjoy the ridiculously fun adventure through New Zealand.  Meet Ricky Baker, played by 13-year old New Zealander Julian Dennison, who is a comically portrayed foster kid. Ricky is angsty, adorably chubby, and stubborn in his refusal to succumb to the evil Child Services' attempts to place him in a home. Yet all it takes is the heartwarming constancy of an "Aunt" Bella, (hilariously and movingly played by the relatively low profile Rima Te Wiata), to make Ricky Baker comfortable with the idea of family again.

Rima Te Wiata's relatively short screen time stunned me as she embodied a compassionate, flawed, and loyal mother figure. Wiata's realism served her best as she paired warm, well-intended love with silly, ridiculous games that reminded me of what a happy family meant during childhood. The Ricky Baker (Dennison) and Aunt Bella (Wiata) interactions, and the memories of those, were some of the most moving parts of the film.

Wiata's hysteric inducing yet loving performance sets up the contrast, and the conflict that drives plot, for the differences in Ricky's relationship with Aunt Bella versus his relationship with his stoic Uncle Hec. Played by the strong, grandfatherly Sam Neill (of Peaky Blinder acclaim), Uncle Hec is perhaps the opposite of his wife Bella, and most similar to Ricky Baker at the beginning of the movie. Both are inexpressive, sullen, and lonely. Their initial unwillingness to build a relationship is essentially the driving force of the movie. And Uncle Hec plays the part of the reluctant but ultimately deeply caring paternal figure to Ricky Baker.

Sam Neill owns the space as Uncle Hec. His perfectly swept hair briefly flickers an ember of jealousy in me; the man is 68 and perfectly well-groomed. But far more important is his portrayal of the almost stuttering, incommunicable old man who'd rather be lonely again than risk the attachment of befriending his wife's adopted child. He struggles with death, and the coping of that (one scene takes a particular amusing jab at religion's answer for death). Uncle Hec should be closed off and tries to be. But Hec simply cannot help the magnetic charm of Dennison's playful, amusingly "hip" Ricky Baker. As their relationship grows, one cannot but help feel the growing intensity and desperation that Ricky and Uncle Hec share as they fight for one another, against Child Services and society and the world. Despite the realization of how death can take a loved one so easily, or perhaps because of it, the two fight savagely to protect their little family on their adventure through the wilderness of life.

Neill's subtle, awkward glances communicated Uncle Hec's struggle to express himself. Neill's performance is not forceful or overly strong; he simply is the lonely, independent man. Rachel House also makes a funny performance as the overly stern, completely clueless, and obsessed Child Services  representative. House's portrayal as Paula becomes a highly exaggerated representation of societal forces that attempt to divide loved ones from each other. (I don't think I've seen any other film with a Child Services agent at the helm of a tank). But Rachel House's dramatic, stern antics, with the careless insults she tosses at Ricky Baker demonstrates the film's sub-criticism of the foster system as a whole. Juxtaposed with Aunt Bella's wholesome love and even Uncle Hec's grudging friendship, Paula's infuriating pursuit of "government property" makes me question the validity of our foster system, and wonder how far off the dramatized, demonized Child Services is from the truth.

The rest of the film is Uncle Hec's and Ricky Baker's wild adventure through the beautiful New Zealand wilderness, as they are on the run from Child Services. The chase builds on the growth of Hec's and Ricky's friendship, and the beautiful message that the childhood strength and love that we so desperately long for can come from who we choose as family, no matter how silly, or broken indeed, we are.