Child welfare service's Paula (Rachel House, "Eagle vs Shark," "Boy") regards Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) as a 'bad egg,' but out in the Bush, Bella Faulkner (Rima Te Wiata) is thrilled to give the boy a home. Her unexpected death leaves her taciturn husband Hec (Sam Neill, "Jurassic Park") with a demand that the boy be returned to the system, but Ricky will have none of it and the duo take to the hills as government agencies and bounty hunters begin a "Hunt for the Wilderpeople."
Adapting Barry Crump's book, writer/director Taika Waititi ("Boy," "What We Do in the Shadows") has made a hilarious and heartfelt adventure that's a Kiwi twist on the curmudgeonly Carl and overweight outsider Russell of Pixar's "Up" by way of the outlaws that were "Thelma and Louise." Full of eccentricities, from its inappropriately aggressive welfare worker to haikus about maggots, the film's charms lie not so much in its story as its characterizations and wonky flourishes.
Take Bella, for example. She's the sunshine to Hec's gloom, a woman who wins Ricky over with a hot water bottle and a self-penned birthday song. When Ricky runs away on his first night, he awakens to Bella's smiling face, humorous observation and offer of pancakes. Bella can also take down a wild boar with a knife (a foreshadowing of a later scene) and has no qualms about teaching the self-described 'gangsta delinquent' how to shoot a rifle. Te Wiata may not have a lot of screen time, but her presence is felt throughout.
Bella may have loved having Ricky call her 'Auntie,' but Hec wants nothing to do with 'Uncle.' It's an accident that forces his lot in with the kid, who follows him into the bush only to have Hec fracture his ankle, requiring a six week rough camping recovery. When they eventually make their way to a hunter's shelter, Ricky delights in the tacked up newspaper article describing their disappearance, but when three men stumble in, Ricky's unintentional double entendres lead them to believe Hec's a pedophile. They get away, but the manhunt intensifies.
This, of course, gives Hec and Ricky plenty of time and tribulation to get to know each other, Ricky's discovery of Hec's illiteracy adding to Bella's story (she took in the rejected, including both Hec and Ricky's dogs, Zag and Tupac). When they find a ranger in critical health, Ricky goes for help and has a solo sojourn with the sultry and sarcastic Kahu (Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne) and her layabout dad TK (Troy Kingi), but he rejoins Hec using the older man's survival tips. But no sooner have they enjoyed the hospitality of a literal 'bushman,' Psycho Sam (Rhys Darby, HBO's 'Flight of the Conchords'), than the calvary comes calling.
Young Dennison is a natural, ably portraying his gangsta exterior as a protective shell waiting to be cracked. The kid's got deadpan comic timing. Neill makes for just the right foil, so like his inadvertent charge, struggling with grief. House is hilarious, welfare worker turned delusional warrior along with her dumb cop sidekick Andy (Oscar Kightley).
Waititi has proven himself as an auteur with a taste for home grown oddities, an offbeat commentator on modern Kiwi life. "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" is his best film to date.
Robin did not see this film.
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