Words by Patrick Dunham / Illustration by Miro Merrill
The year 2016 was the year of man’s cinematic exodus into the wild. Where before there was “The Revenant” and “Swiss Army Man,” now comes “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” the sprightly coming-of-age tale from New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi.
When Ricky (Julian Dennison), a teenage troublemaker from the city, is sent to a new foster home deep in the country, an alliance between his rebellious-natured self and a patriarchal grump named Hec (Sam Neill) seems unlikely to blossom. The young miscreant would rather write haikus and spend time sulking around the foliage than hunt hogs with the grizzled man, but a tragedy forces the pair to join forces. With Hec unable to have sole guardianship over Ricky due to shady criminal history in his youth, and Ricky fiercely resistant to the alternative living situation of juvy, they wind up in the vast surrounding forest.
After becoming lost wayfarers in the boundless kiwi bush, a national manhunt is organized for the fugitives, which turns them into a national sensation with a cash reward offered for their capture. Somewhere along the way, the wannabe-gangster and rugged isolationist break down their safeguarding and reach a point of wholehearted expression typically rejected within these masculine archetypes.
While this premise seems in the same vein of “Into the Wild” or a story of man versus nature, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” proves to be a whimsical comedy with no dull moments.
Banter between Ricky and Hec shifts between serious bits of what it means to grow into adulthood and what we do to adapt to life’s constant flux, to exchanges that are light, genuinely funny (I laughed more than I have at the theater in recent memory) and peppered with seamless transitions of mood and backstory that blend into the narrative with ease. Ricky constantly references American movies and hip hop –he names his dog Tupac– and the unlikely buddies’ national notoriety grows as their trek continues.
The journey includes encounters with an antagonistic group of hunters, a conspiracy-theorist hermit, and an incapacitated forest ranger: three neatly paced narrative turns with the variety and change in environment needed to keep the film’s wheels turning. But it is the warming performances that has swept audience awards at festivals ranging from San Francisco to Edinburgh, which will win over any type of moviegoer in a wonderful slow-burn of friendship, rarely put to the silver screen with such cursive lightness. To say more of the plot would give it away, but imagine a travellers’ journey somewhere along the lines of “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Up.” “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” would be a tedious bore if not for the quippy writing and particular sense of humor that sets the narrative in its own terms.
Instead of being a contrived coming-of-age story that rushes the protagonist’s growth, the reality of being lost in the bush for an elapsed seven months sets a leisurely pace in which we are left with the natural progression of the pair shifting from merely tolerant of one another to inseparable, The film doesn’t hammer it out as a blindsiding thesis, but it has much to say about masculine vulnerability and what happens when we relax and drop the protective shield with someone to get to the core of who we are.
The only possible critique would be that the movie doesn’t try to adhere to realism. When hiding behind some foliage the duo narrowly evades a SWAT team, all while Ricky is trying to whisper the situation’s similarity to a scene in “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.”
With sweeping helicopter shots showcasing New Zealand’s surreal beauty, dynamic editing, and a duo that never stops riling laughs with their polarizing differences, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is a solid crowd-pleaser, certain to draw laughs and reflections on what we can learn from the last person on Earth we’d think to learn it from. If you go in expecting a lovely romp through sweeping timbers and a newfound mentorship that transcends age and the strict delineations of “adult” and “child,” “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” will not disappoint in being a charming conclusion for the summer movie season.