This quirky entertaining production is a feel-good movie in the best sense of the word, even though it is filled with tense, exciting, and mournful events. The thing that makes it “feel-good” is its genuineness in depicting characters who are often misunderstood and seeing them triumph primarily because of their assets. It reinforces our hope for humankind.
The opening scenes are striking in their sweeping vistas of mountainous terrain and native music, stopping at an isolated ramshackle cottage. Child welfare caseworker Paula (House) and an officer step out of the car and are greeted warmly by the mistress Bella (Wiata) wearing an animal-face t-shirt. Waiting inside the car is reluctant Ricky (Dennison) who is forced to disembark. He is mute and sullen, clearly opposed to making this his new foster home. He answers no questions, but walks around the house and gets back in the car.
Of course, Paula makes him get out, Bella tries to appeal to him, but he is unmoved. Nevertheless, he acquiesces and stands outside. After the car leaves, Bella proceeds to draw Ricky out, first sagely appealing to him through food (he is chubby). Thereafter, she is a master in knowing just how much to coax, how much to allow him to make his own decisions, and simply being accepting of what he does or says. Even when he attempts to run away, she treats it with humor, but continues to watch over him in the background. Bella’s husband Hec (Neill), however, is a grouch, and wants no part of Bella’s suggestion that Ricky call them “aunt” and “uncle”.
It takes time and patience, but Bella is ultimately successful in winning Ricky over. Then a tragedy occurs, which threatens Ricky’s very existence and requires him and Hec to develop some kind of partnership. Ultimately, they end up in the New Zealand bush being chased by Paula and her minions. (Paula, a stern, rigid, pessimistic character, puts a different meaning into “No child left behind” from what we in this country have come to understand.)
The screenplay by Director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows) is adapted from a book by Barry Crump (although I was told by a friend that the adaptation is a loose one), and is extraordinary in blending adventure, comedy, and drama into a delightful whole. The music by Lukasz Pawel Buda, Samuel Scott, and Conrad Wedde likewise is a find blend of native and contemporary sounds, and Lachlan Milne’s camera tracks the action through the landscape and the personal dramas with an artist’s eye.
With his bushy beard, taciturn demeanor, and skillful portrayal, I had to keep reminding myself I was watching Sam Neill. He and the young actor Julian Dennison are good reasons to see this film—all of its other assets aside. Their sparring, taunting and outright fighting gradually and smoothly turns into grudging respect and collaboration. They’re both so good at showing sullenness and a strong independent streak, trading barbs and self-satisfaction, and the complexities of a changing relationship across time. Rhys Darby as “Psycho Sam” provides welcome comic relief during hyper-tense moments. The two actresses, Wiata and House, in a largely male cast come on strong in showing two very different female perspectives, and provide much of the emotional warmth/heat in the film.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a must-see.