The run of great 2016 indie films continues. Light and shade are so key in telling compelling stories, and Taika Waititi’s impressively domestic and enjoyable latest offering is hard-hitting and hilarious.
Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) arrives at the home of his latest foster family – his last chance to settle before juvie – and finally glimpses a life away from meddling social services. But Ricky’s happy new farm life with kindly Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and grouchy Hec (Sam Neill) is shattered by a tragedy and the two boys go on the run in the New Zealand wilderness as the authorities launch a manhunt in pursuit.
Working as I do for social services, movies about the subject always hit particularly close to home. It’s not quite the gritty gut-punch of something like SHORT TERM 12, but Wilderpeople certainly has its moments and poignancy aplenty. Ricky Baker is told quite blatantly and cruelly that “Nobody wants you” by Paula from Child Welfare (Rachel House) and he finds himself completely out of options after disrupting or running away from so many foster homes. He finds a kindred spirit with Hec, another (big and beardy) lost boy who doesn’t really fit anywhere and only just manages to live on the very periphery of society with the help of his wife.
It’s a road movie, but a very sincere road movie. Aside from the usual unlikely friendships and bonding, escape from inept and smothering authorities, the film has an important real-world point to make about outdated attitudes to, and within, social care. Though Ricky and Hec far from hit it off at first, Hec is under no illusion that he would ever be considered a suitable foster carer by himself, without the involvement of a woman. Waititi is highlighting the preposterousness of this – in today’s society of plenty of well-adjusted people living alone, with the appropriate checks in place why could a man not be a good new parent to a child in need of a safe home? He pokes fun at social services’ hypocrisy of sticking to the letter of the law in some regards but taking shortcuts when too much time or energy in required (social services signing off Bella’s tumbledown farmhouse as “fine” but showing very public concern for Ricky as soon as he is left on his own with Hec). It might be a (slightly cartoony) satirical representation, a vision of the real world warped for comic effect, but there’s always an element of truth to good satire.
From the opening verdant panorama accompanied by a etherial choir, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is achingly beautiful. New Zealand is far more than Middle Earth, and while you can certainly play spot-the-shared-locations, Wilderpeople only references LORD OF THE RINGS once. It’s a gorgeous, mythical land whatever your story is, but it’s very pleasing having such a New Zealand sensibility and sense of humour represented on screen as well as the country’s lovely landscapes.
As he demonstrated in WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS and elsewhere, Taika Waititi’s signature comic style of heightened awkwardness and surreal asides gives his films a wonderfully appealing tone. Some people are just funny even before they open their mouths and the film features two firecracker cameos from Rhys Darby as paranoid Psycho Sam who elatedly introduces his ancient Landrover, “Crumpy!” and Waititi himself as an inept minister who thinks Doritos are an appropriate element of a eulogy. Julian Dennison’s completely sells his incredulous and innocent response to a TV report on the manhunt for a Caucasian male, as Hec is “obviously white!”. Our two leads turn in performances among the year’s best – Dennison is one hell of a charismatic find and it’s so gratifying to see Sam Neill get to not only play a character from his native land but to really stretch his acting chops in some difficult and really dark scenes.
It would be easy to sugarcoat the conclusion to a film like this. You want Ricky and Hec to get through their experiences unscathed and happy, and for the villains to be punished, broken and humiliated. Waititi ties everything up by the story’s end, and everyone gets what they deserve, but he thankfully doesn’t take the easy way out and over-romanticise what happens – there are consequences to everything that transpired.
Catch Hunt for the Wilderpeople while you can – you’ll be uplifted, you’ll be enlightened and you’ll be able to switch off from a year of shonky blockbusters for a while. Speaking of blockbusters, Waititi’s next film is THOR: RAGNAROK for Marvel. However that turns out, it certainly won’t be lacking in personality, or facial hair. SSP