Hunt for the Wilder people
HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE, comedy/adventure, rated PG-13, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3.5 chiles
Ricky Baker (newcomer Julian Dennison) is a very bad egg. We have this on the authority of his child welfare officer, Paula Hall (Rachel House,
White Lies). The movie opens with Paula delivering the thirteen-year-old into the hands of his last-chance foster family, the remote bush-dwelling farm couple Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her husband, the curmudgeonly old Hec (Sam Neill). Ricky’s lengthy rap sheet includes theft, arson, and graffiti. If he doesn’t stick with Bella and Hec, it’s “juvey” (juvenile prison) for this pudgy, sullen delinquent, who looks like he stepped off a toxic New Zealand Campbell’s Soup can.
Bella is a geyser of love and optimism and welcomes the kid with open arms and an open heart. Hec, arriving home with the bloody carcass of a wild boar slung over his shoulder, glares at him sourly and growls, “Ever worked on a farm before, or are you just ornamental?” City kid Ricky has never seen a farm and doesn’t much care for what he sees. He checks into his bedroom and checks out the same night, but he only manages a few hundred yards in his bid for freedom. Bella finds him asleep nearby the next morning.
But circumstances, not to be revealed here, result in Ricky’s running away again, to avoid being repossessed by child protective services. He fakes his suicide and hightails it for the dense New Zealand bush with his dog, a birthday present from Bella, gets hopelessly lost, and is found by savvy woodsman Hec. But Hec’s avowed intention to turn the kid in is foiled when the old man is injured, and the two have to hole up in the woods while he heals.
The authorities assume kidnapping and worse, and a massive manhunt ensues for Hec and Ricky. The bulk of the movie follows as the two traverse the jungle “like wildebeest fleeing across the Serengeti,” in Ricky’s colorful image, eluding bounty hunters, cops, the military, the press, and the relentless, Javert-like Paula.
All this is in the inventive hands of Kiwi writer-director Taika Waititi, whose vampire picture What We Do in the Shadows earned a lot of favorable notice and who will proceed from here, in one of the more unlikely cinematic career leaps, to Hollywood to take charge of the next Thor blockbuster. But there’s no hint of that impending superhero style in this endearing, off-kilter exercise in genre storytelling gone delightfully off the rails. It’s the well-worn story of the gradual, grudging bonding of a curmudgeon and a kid, but told with a deep reservoir of charm and surprise.
Wilderpeople is adapted from Wild Pork and Watercress, a novel by the late, beloved New Zealand author Barry Crump, which presumably is a quirky piece of work itself. But Waititi surely adds off-the-wall twists of his own, including a few unexpected soundtrack songs and his own cameo as an imaginative backwoods preacher in this extravagant, farfetched, but captivating tale. Neill is, as always, wonderful. And it’s a breakout performance by young Dennison as the haiku-spouting, wisecracking Ricky.
Wild child: Julian Dennison