Film Review: Hunt for the Wilderpeople (NZ, 2016)

Have you seen that ad where the three kids sit in the car and talk about how their dads drive when they’re blazed? If so, you’ll probably recognise Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), though he’s done some growing.

When he arrives at his latest foster home, deep in the New Zealand bushland, he steps out of the police car and it rises an inch, befitting his gangster aspirations. We find out from childcare officer Paula (Rachel House) that Ricky is a bad egg. In other words, a ball of rejection hiding under a circus-tent hoodie, along with multiple instances of vandalism and arson. Sometimes, when it gets too much, he channels his hurt into a haiku poem, or buries it under a stack of pancakes.

This is another example of director Taika Waititi’s undeniable strength; writing young characters that hide their heartbreak behind a façade of toughness, and keeping it funny by sustaining their denial. So it was in Boy (2010). Unfortunately, the two films also share Waititi’s weakness in the long form, so that the ad above (which he also directed) and the Oscar Nominated short, Two Cars, One Night (2004), are more successful in style and emotion.

Not that there isn’t style here. The shockingly hilarious pig slaughter by foster mother, Bella (Rima Te Wiata), is a flash of shots that’s so hip it might have been in a Wes Anderson or Richard Ayoade film. It only feels out of place because the editing is otherwise choppy and unimaginative. The result has a televisual rhythm that undermines the scope of wilderness, after being so magnificently introduced. Less forgivable, it undermines the comedy. Despite all the colourful characters – among them Rhys Darby as a wild bush man – it is a long 90 minutes.

But the central characters are so well drawn, it’s hardly possible to resist. I haven’t mentioned the other member of the herd, Hec (Sam Neill), who’s equally a reject of society, and hiding behind the grumpy plume of a rollie. He and Ricky, depending on their fortunes as bush outlaws, alternate between hate and… well, they’ll be damned if they’re gonna say it. Lucky for us, the deeper it’s buried, the more it shines through.

Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is out in cinemas this week.