Review: Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Reviewed by: Jack Dawson

I have a fondness for Taika Watiti, aside from being the Director of some damn good films, his previous outing, What We Do In The Shadows, was the first film I ever reviewed for Rotunda media. And now I have the great pleasure of reviewing his latest offering, a film about loss, grief, and crippled emotional growth.
You know, for kids.

Ricky Baker is, according to the Child Protection services who foist him onto a largely unprepared foster mother, a problem child. He burns things, hits things, graffitis, lapses into sullen silences, and in general exhibits all of the antisocial tendencies of a child who knows for a fact that he is not wanted.
And yet Ricky Baker does find a home with kindly foster mother Bella, and her husband Hector, a home that is dashed apart by large and uncontrollable circumstances.
Now, thanks to a series of misunderstandings, he is forced to hide in the obscenely pretty New Zealand bushland with Hector, while the over-zealous child protection authorities hunt them down.

The most striking element of Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the way that all of its characters exhibit an unlikeable personality trait at one point or another over the course of the film.
And I don’t mean like an annoying tendency or an off-putting tic, I mean that every character demonstrates the ability to act like a deeply unpleasant person. On that merit alone I would recommend Hunt for the Wilderpeople as a vital film for children, since there doesn’t exist a lot of media that gives you an idea of what to do if you’re an odious personality.
The central plot device of Ricky Baker and Hector hiding away from civilization in the bush is actually pretty dysfunctional if one applies any logical thought to it, and it’s pretty clear that neither are acting in a responsible or healthy manner. This moral ambiguity even extends to the saintly Foster mother Bella, who cracks quite a few fat jokes at Ricky’s expense.
But the genius of Hunt for the Wilderpeople is that after exposing these unpleasant truths about its characters, it then shows their admirable qualities, and reminds us that we are all capable of acting out of desperation and selfishness as surely as kindness and empathy.

It should also be said that the Actors do a fantastic job with the meaty roles they’ve been given. Julian Dennison (who was also on top form in Paper Planes) and Sam Neill share a compelling chemistry, Rachel House is a riot as the gung-ho Child Services Officer, and even Taika Watiti gets in on the action as a particularly memorable priest.
But honourable mentions have to go to Rema Te Wiata, who imbues the role of Bella with a tremendous warmth tempered by deeply uncool dagginess, mixed in with a bit of bloodlust when the time comes to hunt a pig down. The emotional heart of the film rests entirely on her skill as an Actress, best exemplified during a scene where she sings a self-composed song for Ricky on his birthday. The song is about him coming to live in their house, is played on a small electronic keyboard, and features his name being sung during the chorus.
It is simultaneously the most cringe worthy and heart-warming scene I’ve ever witnessed, and embodies the film perfectly.

However there are some problems with the film, nothing that ruins the whole movie, but some pervasive problems nonetheless. While I previously praised Rachel Houses’ performance as the gung-ho Paula Hall (who is funny and a good foil for Ricky), it should be said that Paula Hall is a rather simple antagonist for such complex protagonists. The opening scene seems to suggest that her grumpiness and emotional disconnect are the result of an unrewarding and difficult job, but her bizarre intensity in hunting down Ricky Baker (she literally compares herself to the Terminator at one point) rather undermines this more grounded and sympathetic opening.
In addition, while it’s not exactly the fault of the film, it is a little disconcerting to see a child using and waving around a gun, especially when basic rules of gun safety aren’t observed. That’s probably more indicative of my personal hang-ups more than anything, but I just found it really distracting (especially after the unpleasantness of the Orlando shootings on Sunday).
That, and as much as this seems to be aimed towards families, I’m not sure how engaged smaller children might be with the personal journeys of growth and healing that the protagonists undergo.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is my favourite kind of film, the one where I talk about the plot as vaguely as possible so the surprise and impact can be preserved for movie-goers. I’d recommend you see it as soon as possible, if only to support a film industry that’s produced some real gems. And hey, any Marvel Fans out there will probably want to check out what to expect from the upcoming Director of Thor: Ragnorok.
As for me, I’m just looking forward to the sequel to What we do in the Shadows they’ve supposedly got lined up.
It’s about Werewolves, and it’s calledWe’re Wolves’. I’m not making that up.