Street meets the wild and presumably much more than that in Hunt for the Wilderpeople; Darren and Lee checks it out.
Sometimes a movie comes along and you don’t know what to say about it. Your thoughts and feelings about it are conflicted and complex, intermingling with the experience of watching it and the later self-reflection with how it made you feel. In some ways, there is nothing to say; in other ways, too much.
That might just be the sign of a great film.
The story follows Ricky Baker, a teenage boy from New Zealand who is described as a bad egg by his support worker, and a “gangsta” by himself. He struggles to fit in any place provided for him and when he is presented to the farm of “Auntie” Bella and her belligerent husband Hec, this gangsta has to learn to fit into a lifestyle that he isn’t prepared for or else the local juvie will be the next stop. When disaster strikes, Ricky and Hec team up as an unlikely pair to run off into the Bush and learn what it means to be family.
Walking down a street in London I happened to see the poster for this, having no knowledge of its premise beyond what I could glean from the image. So watching this I was totally in the dark, going only by my affection for last year’s What We Do in the Shadows, the director’s previous work.
Sam Neil stars as Hec, in a role that must be almost typical for him, as the curmudgeonly old man who dislikes children; a role he is more than capable for and fans of Jurassic Park will appreciate. He performs wonderfully, being both gruff and angry yet inherently likeable with just enough of an edge to make us really sink into what kind of a man this is.
Alongside him is relative newcomer Julian Dennison playing Ricky. The crux of the movie has to be their relationship and it just works. Their chemistry is believable but not overbearing, nothing feels forced or shoved down the audience’s throat. Spending a significant amount of time focusing just on the two of them was the right choice and the quiet humour that they have, playing off against a myriad of other side characters is funny but never guffaw-worthy. Most of the movie plays around with this type of humour that fans of Shadows will remember, funny but never distractingly so.
In many ways this is your typical adventure story, that plays around with the same beats as so many before it, reminding me a lot of The Blues Brothers or Thelma and Louise in terms of its story progression. But there is a real sincerity here, that I, as a city boy, am both terrified and enthralled by. The bush is an almost unpopulated expanse that screams of an earlier more primal way of life that is captured so eloquently here, never one to shy away from tough truths.
And I think that captures the movie in a nutshell, terrifying and enticing, with great deals of both, conflict that it doesn’t ignore, or beauty that it shines a light on.
I can see this being a movie that many will forget, and one, perhaps, that I am overselling but I loved it for all its dry humour, its understated emotive scenes and, most of all, how it made me feel. Even if I can never put that into words.
[Darren’s review was originally posted 22/09/2016]
Expression and the act of expressing oneself is not something all human beings excel at; for some it’s innate, for others it takes time and effort and for some past that point, either they don’t need it or will never find it. It’s heartwarming then to see Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which seems almost like a survivor’s story from the writer’s perspective on how best to express their problems with expression as a child, and how they might not always have been the problem. Bonus to that: the story found a director and a team of filmmakers that ‘get it’ and cared passionately about bringing that story to life.
From a thematic perspective, we cover a lot of ground here: how we struggle with grief, or approach it in different ways, and the process we take getting past that; family, what that means, who that involves and what they mean to us; perceptions on others, how we adorn people we don’t know with titles they don’t deserve, how what seems best for us might not be best for us and vice-versa for the worse; hypocrisy and weirdoes and parenting and self-inflection and so on, there’s a lot in this.
What’s clever about the film is how it crams all these themes in, but it never distracts from the characters and their relationships, and it never pushes or even forces one statement into the forefront. These are just lessons we’ll pick up and adjust to as we watch, hidden under the most important factor: comedy.
Here, Hunt for the Wilderpeople isn’t simply laughing off its problems, but telling a fine story with fun, likeable characters in a scenario that is a little skewed and absurd. It blends this with a great sense of humour, encompassing surrealism, absurdism, modern cartoons and pop culture reference with a dash of analysis on how we really talk over how movie characters talk which ties it all together. The story is still often a little sad, and it has its difficulties, but the drama never overcomes the fun which is so important for delivering good messages to people who don’t want to churn through them.
What’s great is this also makes a fantastic kids film too; accessible to all ages but not specifically catered to a single one, there’s a little something to gain for everyone involved. And sure, maybe it’s a smidgen too long, but the story avoids stepping into ‘falling out’/‘misunderstanding’ territory; fake dramatic shake-ups because the film needs drama. There’s drama inherent in the ‘will-they-won’t-they’ relationship of Ricky and Hec and the film knows this, cleverly avoiding the beckon to slump into narrative mundanity.
It might not always connect, it’s not exactly a personal story, and the little gang of antagonists aren’t really funny or interesting enough to make much of an impact on the story, but there’s plenty here for those who just want a well shot, well directed, well told comedic story about a kid and his adventures with his crazy ‘family’.
An easy recommendation.