Film Review: “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”

wilder-posterStarring: Julian Dennison, Sam Neill, Rachel House
Directed By: Taika Waititi
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 101 minutes
Orchard

Our Score: 5 out of 5 Stars

Last year New Zealand director Taika Waititi breathed life into the vampire genre with his brilliant What We Do in the Shadows, my favorite comedy of 2015. The director this week turns again to his home turf to even more success for the quirky tale of Ricky Baker in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Wilderpeople is an unconventional spin on the tried-and-true old mentor meeting his younger match that manages to be action packed, unpredictable and heartfelt without veering into the saccharine territory oft trod by coming of age stories. Not only has Waititi matched my expectations based on his Shadows and “Flight of the Conchords” work but he’s significantly upped my excitement for his next project–Thor: Ragnarok (as if that was even possible!)

Julian Dennison stars as a ‘real bad egg’ called Ricky Baker, an orphan from the city who’s been to his share of foster homes. Child services drops him at a remote farm in the New Zealand bush kept by the sweet Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and bearded grump Hec (Sam Neill). Bella invites Ricky to dub them Auntie and Uncle, though Ricky and Hec are less than keen. When the welcoming Bella passes away leaving Ricky under Hec’s care, his new country life looks about to be ripped from under him again by child services. Naturally Ricky flees to the wilderness with Hec following along. They quickly become a pair of outlaws–everyone believing Hec a kidnapper–and infamous for evading a country-wide manhunt.

As Ricky Baker, newcomer Julian Dennison delivers a star-making performance. He is the perfect age for this little adventure of Waititi’s. A foster child who’s been passed around with a long list of ‘offenses’ (which child service agents will rattle off at the drop of a hat to hilarious effect), Baker is on the verge of puberty and of actually buying into his own bad reputation but is still very much malleable. There’s glimpses of Ricky posturing his ”gangsta” image between his wardrobe or his Scarface references but the brilliance of Dennison is watching the child that he actually is come to the surface. Dennison’s vulnerability is exposed when faced with the prospect of being separated from his most stable home to date. Meanwhile, his curiosity and eagerness to learn the bush life chip away at his city-kid exterior and the fact that he’s wont to spout haikus only makes him all the more endearing. There are a million layers to Ricky Baker and Dennison plays them all with great heart.

This isn’t at all to belittle the terrific support Dennison receives from his adult cast. It’s been 23 since Sam Neill begrudgingly led some kids through Jurassic Park and the years and the beard have only hardened his ornery exterior to perfection. His soft center is tougher to wear down to, but Ricky is game for the challenge. And there aren’t any dinosaurs that Neill needs to evade, but as the formidable Paula from Child services, Rachel House is an absolute scene stealer with dreams of being the Terminator. Rounding out these guys is an appearance from frequent Waititi collaborator Rhys Darby used to wacky effect as Psycho Sam.

Despite some real live threats in the bush and some choice language from kids and adults alike (“Like hell!” abounds), I can’t help but feel that Hunt for the Wilderpeople might be a perfect family film. Shot in beautiful locations, it’s hilarious without being malicious, populated with quirky characters forming genuine human bonds and I can’t stress enough the joy I derived from Dennison’s honest performance. Add to all that an action packed finale and you’ve got A Summer Movie to compete with the biggest of blockbusters. As Uncle Hec says, truly “Majestical.”

June 24 – I screened Hunt for the Wilderpeople at TFF 2016, it is now in limited US release. Visit Wilderpeople.film for trailer and local release dates. 

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