Its humor makes for a trip to the cinema worth taking, but the clichéd story and rocky ending hold Wilderpeople back from being the leader of the pack.
This summer, indie movies are headed into the wild. Both Captain Fantastic and Swiss Army Man drop audiences off in the thick of the forest. And now the New Zealand film Hunt for the Wilderpeople takes it a step further, setting almost the entirety of the story deep in the bush. While its humor makes for a trip to the cinema worth taking, its clichéd story and rocky ending hold it back from being the leader of the pack.
Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a “bad egg” in the foster system, leading him to his last resort foster family, a farm couple named Bella and Hec. Bella (Rima Te Wiata) is first seen wearing a sweater with a cat’s face on it, while Hec (Sam Neill) appears with a gun and a dead hog slung over his back. Ricky quickly learns he is in 13-year-old boy heaven. He has an “auntie” who leaves him a hot water bottle in his bed at night and lets him run away as long as he is home for breakfast and an “uncle” who looks like he was in, I don’t know, Jurassic Park or something like that. On Bella and Hec’s property, Ricky is free to hunt and get dirty and continue to write haikus, an endearing therapy trick taught to him by a counselor in the system. Best of all this family accepts him. On his birthday, Bella performs a song she’s written for the now teenager: “Ricky Baker, once rejected, now accepted…by me…and Hector…a trifecta.”
This all seems far too idyllic, however, and only 20 minutes in, Bella dies, leaving the state no choice but to come and collect. This in turn leaves Ricky with no choice but to run away into the bush. The rest of the story is flows with predictability. The young boy and the crotchety old man grow close and fend for themselves while on the lamb. Sam Neill is fine, but Julian Dennison is phenomenal. He carries the film through the woods, playing the perfect gangster-wannabe city kid foil to Hec’s man vs. wild persona. Every line Dennison delivers offers a surprising mix of sincerity and naivety that never nears grating. Dennison cannot take all the credit. He is working with a script devised by Taika Waititi, co-writer and director of 2014’s vampire horror mockumentary What We Do in The Shadows. Waititi’s partner on What We Do in The Shadows was Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement, and though Clement’s name is absent from the credits of Wilderpeople, fans of his wacky humor will still find solace here.
Waititi’s only misstep in Wilderpeople comes in the un-believability of some of the final scenes. It’s a lovely story to see a broken kid find a place to belong, however clichéd it might be. Adding in Waititi’s brand of humor elevates it further so no one minds watching a story that feels not especially fresh. Even though it’s a stretch to believe this duo could last in the bush for over five months, the heart outweighs the nagging questions. That is until the military gets involved and a full on action movie car chase scene materializes. The manhunt that ensues to find the rogue pair reaches its climax at the end of the second half and feels overshot. The drawn out sequence is jarring and off-putting with the rest of the film having elapsed at a leisurely, comfortable pace. Suddenly the gas is stepped on and the balance is lost.
The ricocheting by no means counts Hunt for the Wilderpeople out. Not even its occasional under-baked sentimentality can conquer the winning performance by the young lead and the zany mind of the writer/director. The film quiets down for the finale, returning to the wit and sizzling energy that made the first two thirds an enjoyable experience. But not without leaving the audience with a bit of whiplash and an unfortunate case of disbelief.