HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE
(2016, Taika Waititi)
[Image courtesy of Madman Entertainment]
[4 out of 5 stars]
Ricky is a bad egg – he steals stuff, breaks stuff, and defaces stuff. The Child Welfare Officer (hilariously played with commitment by a straight-faced Rachel House) describes him like he's a big-league criminal. He's not, he's cute as a button. The officer takes her job seriously, you see. "No Child Left Behind" is her favourite motto and she compares herself to the Terminator.
She drops Ricky at his new home. There he meets Uncle Hec (Sam Neill), a grumpy old man who makes it obvious Ricky wasn't his idea, and Bella Faulkner (Rima Te Wiata), a sweet but plain-spoken woman who is as good as gutting wild pigs as she is knitting cat sweaters.
The opening scene takes us somewhere in New Zealand. There’s a house surrounded by mountains, forests and nothing else. Smoke puffs emit from its chimney and the title of the chapter appear. At this point, the cosy storybook setting made me long for a hot water bottle and lo and behold, one appears later on tucked in Ricky's bed. This object of domesticity is an endearing way to say welcome home and Ricky begins to warm up to his new family. Ricky runs away on the first night, but this is almost an instinct rather than a desire. Bella finds him asleep on the grass the next morning and tells him to come back home and have some breakfast before running away again.
The humour is well-balanced and the actors are precise with their comedic timing and delivery. It's endlessly quotable ("I didn't choose the skuxx life, the skuxx life chose me") and the actors deliver the dialogue in perfect tone whether that's deadpan or absurd. There's self-mockery, but it's always gentle. There's conflict but there's never any underlying meanness. It's all for fun. The comedy stems from familiar, almost humdrum places - that's exactly its appeal.
For a moment, all seems well until a tragedy occurs and Uncle Hec and Ricky end up in the New Zealand wilderness where they are hunted down by the police. Then the real adventure begins.
WILDERPEOPLE is a story told within the scope of a child’s mindset. The adults act and talk like a child made them up, like they stepped out of a kid's imagination. They look like archetypes, which is reinforced by the costuming - cat sweaters for Bella, flannel and a bushman's hat for Uncle Hec and hoodies and snapbacks for Ricky. This changes later on once Ricky warms up to Uncle Hec and he starts looking more like him - a nice touch.
But this isn’t a children’s movie nor is it overly sentimental. A touch of melancholy and darkness undercuts the saccharine and quirk giving the story more depth than your average adventure story. It reminded me of Wes Anderson's movies but without his preciousness. Its Kiwi-ness is a little too laid back for that.
It also has a big, beating heart with an emotional core you'd expect from a Pixar movie. It's essentially about two unlikely people getting along. Their relationship is the anchor of the story. We only get glimpses of Ricky's past but it's clear he's had an atypical childhood. The wide-eyed quality of the filmmaking makes up for Ricky's lack of a conventional childhood that it's almost a manifestation of it. The old man learns how to see the world through a child's eyes and the child learns how to navigate the adult world. It's a tale as old as the mountains.
Its scope may be small but its appeal is universal. This is a true gem. A comforting and hilarious story of two outsiders finding their place in the world. As Uncle Hec would say...it's majestical.