While the odd couple trope has been done before, in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, actor/writer/director Taika Waititi is able to breathe new life into the genre with his adaptation of Barry Crump’s 1986 novel Wild Pork and Watercress. The New Zealand filmmaker, who is also a painter and comedian, brings to life an endearing relationship between Ricky Baker, a 13-year-old Maori boy, and Hec Faulkner, a cantankerous old Caucasian man, who lives in the New Zealand mountains.
Ricky (Julian Dennison) is perpetually in-and-out of foster care. Nothing more than a petty troublemaker, Ricky fancies himself “gangsta” and is a step away from juvenile detention. He is fostered by Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her husband Hec (Sam Neill). Bella is tough and able to see right through Ricky’s act, though she is kind and understanding. After a series of encounters with farm life and Bella smiling through all of their challenges, including hunting wild boar with a knife, she quickly gains Ricky’s affection.
In a standout performance, Wiata brings out the compassion and humanity at the core of why family makes us feel safe, while still being able to deliver a comedic performance. One of the more moving moments of the film is when Bella celebrates Ricky’s birthday and gets him a dog (who he later names “Tupac”), and Ricky candidly shares that the day is the best birthday he has ever had. There we get a glimpse of the harsh life he’s led and his internal struggle. Bella tries, to no avail, to make Hec and Ricky connect, but the old man only wishes to be “left alone” and the teenager is too cool to open up.
In a tragic turn of events, Ricky and Hec are forced to be together. The unlikely pair end up in the wilderness, running away from Child Welfare Services in what later becomes a large-scale manhunt after a twisted ankle leads to a series of hilarious misunderstandings. While on the run, Ricky and Hec learn more about each other than they would have liked to. The bonding, although deeply moving, is far from cheesy and pandering, as Waititi’s style keeps you laughing while showcasing the deepening of the unlikely duo’s bond. For instance, young Ricky has been taught to deal and express his deeper emotions through haiku. When Ricky and Hec are together, Ricky transmits how he feels through the composition of these simple poems that is equal parts touching and humorous.
Waititi, whose previous work includes a personal favorite, What We Do in the Shadows (What We Do in the Shadows: A vampire mockumentary for the ages — a film review), is able to portray relationships at their best with a light ease. Scattering truly funny and awkward moments throughout the plot’s situational development, Waititi never forces the charms of the duo’s growing compassion. His remarkably sensitive eye makes for a viewing experience that takes very familiar instances, such as chase sequences so typical that they lampoon ’80s movies like Rambo, and transforms them into a grounded, relatable story.
Although the film has its sentimentality, Waititi does not overindulge or lead us to the incredibly happy ending when everything works out. Waititi always stays true to his characters’ core sensibilities. Hec will forever be crotchety and brusque and Ricky will always find ways to say inappropriate things at inopportune times. The adventures of this eccentric pair makes for a truly amusing cinematic experience. Though Hunt for the Wilderpeople is not a challenging or thought-provoking piece, this is the type of film that leaves you with a grin on your face and ready to engage with every and any odd character you may encounter. What a refreshing thought!
The Hunt for the Wilderpeople runs 101 minutes and is rated PG-13 (trigger warning: there is some animal violence). It opened July 15 in our South Florida area at the indie theaters O Cinema Miami Beach, The Tower Theater and Cinema Paradiso-Hollywood, as well as some multiplexes. On July 22 it expands to Cinema Paradiso-Fort Lauderdale and in West Palm at the Stonzek Theater at Lake Worth Playhouse. For nationwide screenings click here. The Orchard provided all still images to illustrate this review and a screener link for the purpose of this review (but we paid to see it on the big screen).