“Hunt for the Wilderpeople”

Just a warning in advance, this essay does dive a bit into the topic of childhood abuse, foster care systems and child abandonment. As does this movie. Yep. It’s one of those kinds of stories.

The story of a lost, unloved child is something that is so well-worn in human storytelling that it wouldn’t be a stretch to say everyone feels like one sometimes. Ok, so maybe I’m just projecting my self-pity onto others, but there are many who feel as though they have been raised like exotic, caged animals. As in, shoved around, placed in uncomfortable environments, sometimes used as an ornament of sorts and almost always looked at as if you are a ticking time bomb. Those words aren’t even enough to do justice to the shit that happens to actual foster children, people who face the horrifying burden of being treated as lesser beings with no agency of their own, while being looked upon to own up to the stuff that makes them…well, people, warts and all, sometimes without the actual care that would let such a person live with or conquer such issues.

So when a story attempts to tackle that stuff, the common approach is to sugarcoat it and twist it into something of a fairy tale that can be inspiring…yet dehumanizing when one thinks about what holds it all together. “Oh, don’t worry, YOU’LL make it you little misunderstood person, because you’re (presumably) good and nice and pure, and so DESERVE to get a happy ending because of that.” You know, not because you’re a human being with needs and desires or anything (See: the Disney adaptations of, “Cinderella”, “Beauty and the Beast”, “The Little Mermaid”, and even, “Mulan” if we’re being honest). I mean, at least the movie adaptations of, “Matilda” and, “Coraline” give their main characters the freedom to be mischievous and curious, with, “Matilda” in particular allowing its titular protagonist to keep her special powers and agency even as she finally gets to have a parental figure who cares about them. And now we have the movie, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”, based on a book by Barry Crump, to show misfits young and old that it is ok to be bratty, mischevious, standoffish, and even hurt, simply because somewhere there is someone who cares about you, warts and all. What we have is quite possibly the most outlandish and yet most humanistic story about a foster child and the search for a place to call Home in years. Yeah, the trailer and advertising makes it look like a whimsical journey (I mean, at least to the U.S., it’s a movie that got a Sundance premiere, so they gotta get those Whole Foods-shopping, Pitchfork-reading, culture vulture yuppie dollars somehow), but what you’ll get is an honest, crude, beautiful and funny look at multiple characters who share a human need to belong while also being themselves.

So, the story centers on Ricky Baker, played here by Julian Dennison. A kid with a bad attitude, or so we’re told by a social worker played by Rachel House, who drops him off in the care of an eccentric family played by Sam Nell and Rima Te Wiata, the former who is not exactly enthused about him. But just as Ricky starts to grow to love the family, something bad happens, prompting him to run away and lead Sam Nell to chase after him, losing them both into a big forest and prompting a nationwide manhunt that could test their relationship and ultimately lead them to the home everyone yearns for. And…well, it’s as simple as I can describe it, buoyed by great actor chemistry and great use of the landscape of New Zealand (The countryside was used in 6 Middle Earth adventures for a reason). Julian Dennison effortlessly carries the heart of the movie, portraying his hardheadedness and yearning against the curmudgeon Hec by Sam Nell, and Rima Te Wiata makes a great splash as an eccentric motherly figure whose role in the story actually carries a lot of weight in ways I don’t want to spoil. Does she serve a more symbolic role later in the movie? Yeah, she does, but pay close attention and her part may just hit you hard because of how it relates to the movie’s overall theme.

Rachel House as the persistent social worker makes for a nasty yet somehow sympathetic villain, someone who is just doing their job…up until the moment where she leans too hard on the, “job” part and then the entire enterprise just looks like a bit of self-promotion. It’s a clever bit of storytelling, for the movie could’ve just as easily gone on about the inhumanity of the juvenile criminal system and how children are treated by adults (and it does, at least through Ricky Baker himself), but instead it’s all shown in one character, with some hilarious lines that work both as a quote you share with your buddies and bits of sinister character play.

Along the way, other characters show up. Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne shows up as a sassy girl who Ricky falls in love with, alongside a dopey, tryhard father figure played by Troy Kingi whose bit works because of how well Tioreore and Julian play off the awkwardness of the entire situation, with him goofing around and asking for a selfie with the infamous character. And then there are cute animals, and 3 travellers who continiously get tangled up with the duo of Hec and Ricky. And just wait until you get to the character played by Rhys Darby. I know it seems like I am just making a glorified list, but I can find no other way to demonstrate just how great every single character is. Even background characters and generic news reporters get their chance to shine, all doing their part to play up a story whose simple structure holds big and powerful themes about the need to be loved and understood, and I wouldn’t be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little…emotional about it.

The writer and director of this movie, Taika Waititi, has previously worked on, “What We Do In The Shadows”, “Flight of the Concords” (a.k.a that one show your music nerd New Zealander friend likes…if you have one), “Eagle vs. Shark” amongst others. And it turns out he’s been employed by Disney/Marvel to direct, “Thor: Ragnorok”. While I am on the fence about how Taika can move from character-driven comedies to a huge multi-million dollar fantasy epic with ties to a franchise (though to be fair Marvel movies even at their worst have always been character-based), based on what one can see from this movie, I think the project is in good hands. Let’s just hope we don’t get a repeat of the drama behind the first, “Ant-Man” movie.

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