"Hunt For the Wilderpeople" is one of those movies that you can only describe as lovely. The script, the tone and the performances all combine to make a movie that just soars by, content to be exactly what it is and nothing more.
The film tells the story of Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), an orphaned city kid with anger issues who is sent by child welfare to live with foster parents in the country on the edge of the New Zealand bush. His new foster parents, Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hec (Sam Neill), are a childless couple content to work their ranch in relative seclusion.
"Wilderpeople" bucks the trend early on by having Ricky grow to love Bella fairly quickly while Hec keeps his emotional and physical distance. Watching Ricky finally have a mother who cares for him is incredibly affecting and gives what is otherwise a fairly lighthearted story some dramatic and emotional heft.
Just as soon as things start feeling safe and secure for Ricky, Bella passes away and he is stuck with Hec, a man not ready or willing to be a father to the boy. Ricky decides to run away (faking his own death and accidentally burning down the barn in the process), causing Hec to follow him deep into the New Zealand bush. When child services and the police see the burnt barn and discover Hec and Ricky missing, they think Hec went crazy with grief, kidnapped the kid, and escaped into the wilderness. A massive manhunt ensues.
Writer/Director Taika Waititi ("What We Do In the Shadows" and the upcoming "Thor: Ragnarok") loves these characters and spends every minute of the runtime making us love them even more. Ricky and Hec journey deeper into the wilderness and meet different oddballs and misfits, all of which become memorable and important to the arc of our central duo.
This structure makes the film somewhat episodic, but it really fits a story that basically boils down to a coming-of-age tale for teenagers and older folk alike. The movie is told in 10 chapters, some lasting only a couple of minutes, lending the story a feeling of a fable being told to a group of kids. The darkness throughout the film feels like that of a Disney movie, where even when something bad happens there is always hope and light further down the path.
Dennison and Neill are great together, with their chemistry selling a relationship built on pain, distrust and gradual affection. Their hunt for a sense of freedom is a powerful thematic device and framework for a movie built on the strength of individual scenes. Whether they find their freedom isn't the point as much as their journey along the way.
"Hunt For the Wilderpeople" is a fun trip along a mildly predictable road, but the characters are so delightful that you'll follow them anywhere. The film plays with our desires to run into the unknown and explore the world on our own terms without an opinion on whether it's inherently smart or not. Freedom is never as simple as it appears; it's only as simple as we make it.
"Hunt for the Wilderpeople"
Dir. Taika Waititi
Now playing at Tin Pan Theater