Taika Waititi’s ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’

Little boy lost and found

In New Zealand director Taika Waititi’s (Eagle vs. Shark, What We Do in the Shadows) Hunt for the Wilderpeople, when 12-year-old Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) first arrives on the scene of his new foster home, he sports a white hoodie plastered with dollar signs and diamonds, a red jacket with an eye logo, crisp white sneakers, and an animal print baseball cap. “Auntie” Bella (Rima Te Wiata), the cheerful woman looking to take him in, wears a grey sweater bearing a cat face. Her husband, “Uncle” Hec (Sam Neill), wears a scowl and carries a dead wild pig.

Julian Dennison as foster child and "bad egg," Ricky. (Photo courtesy of Piki Films)

A meet not-so-cute

A case of a city dweller meeting New Zealand bushpeople, Ricky’s first instinct is to leave, sliding back into the police car from which he came.

His social worker, Paula (Rachel House), isn’t having it. Ricky is what she calls, “a bad egg.” Ricky's having been passed from home to home, it is her hope that the farm’s isolation will keep Ricky out of trouble.

Waititi has fun with these criminal expectations by introducing Ricky with tension-building music and dramatic camera cuts to each item of his “gangster” ensemble. The final reveal of a less-than-threatening young boy is his punchline. Ricky’s love of hip hop influences his look, but the way he zips his hoodie up all the way, so you can’t see his face, implies his clothing is also a test for the families he encounters. So far none have passed.

Into the woods

Ricky bonds with Bella, but clashes with Hec until events take a sudden turn. He finds himself on the run, seeking hiding places in the wilds of the bush while Hec gets stuck running with him. It’s not long before Ricky is wearing a red plaid hoodie much like Hec’s blue one. Any chase takes its toll, however, and a red hoodie isn’t always the best choice for avoiding eventual discovery.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople may occasionally tread familiar ground, with its mixed movie plot (man vs. nature; fugitive from the law), but its attention to detail promises to make an already entertaining ride even more so with repeat viewing. Jokes are fresh in their specificity (one reference to New Zealand-filmed Lord of the Rings is especially spot on), and performances are consistently fleshed out. Neill makes for a great foil as the crotchety Hec, while Rhys Darby (Flight of the Conchords) is very funny as a conspiracy theorist, Psycho Sam. But it’s Julian Dennison’s Ricky who shines, both for his comedic timing and pathos. I look forward to seeing him in more leading roles in the future.

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