Homages to the 1980s have been quite popular this year, with Netflix’s “Stranger Things” heating up the streaming charts while “Ghostbusters,” despite all its controversy and mixed reception, is stirring up wonders at the box office. But “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is something far more subtle. Its draws to the ’80s don’t quite come through in its initial viewing, but it’s one that is inherently present throughout the entire film, if you open your eyes to it. The biggest departure for the film doesn’t come in its off-kilter humor, its foreign accessibility or its low-budget, it’s in the adventure. Since the ’80s, movies with true adventures have been few and far between, missing the twinge of the golden years of Spielberg and Lucas. While “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is anything like “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” its adventure is just as golden.
Having stepped away from big-budget blockbusters, Sam Neill isn’t as much of a household name as he was in 1993 when the mega-hit “Jurassic Park” dropped. His current work is much quieter and seemingly focused on the material presented and less about the financial gains abound from it. Despite his Northern Irish heritage, Neill’s turn as craggly old New Zealander, Hector Faulkner, on the run with his foster son is one that doesn’t leave a shred of doubt in his acting capabilities. Though, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is 100% Julian Dennison’s show. As Ricky Baker, a young Māori foster child assigned to a family out in the New Zealand bush. After his loving foster mother dies, Ricky runs away with his dog, Tupac, into the bush. Having been found by Hector, they soon find themselves on the run from social services who wish to take Ricky away from Hector.
Dennison has the potential to be a bonafide star from this role alone. He’s spunky, quirky and surprisingly likable in himself. These qualities typically find themselves working on an audience’s nerve quickly, but Dennison knows how to balance this, as his knowledge of Ricky is seen quite clearly early on. Ricky isn’t as big of an enigma as people like to make him out to be in the film, as he only searches for what children want most: love. But the broken system he’s placed in finds it difficult to give him the love he truly deserves, making his character the “rebel” everyone thinks him to be. The depth that Dennison places into this character with ease is a sight to behold in an actor of any age, let alone a child.
Despite its low-key nature and lack of any big action sequence, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” has what a lot of films fail to even attempt to capture: natural beauty. It’s not hard to make New Zealand look beautiful, but director Taika Waititi and cinematographer Lachlan Milne take it upon themselves to make one of the most beautifully stark films in recent memory. Much like “Wild” and “Wildlike,” the film’s beauty comes from its locations, and the larger situations that each character finds themselves in in each location. “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” isn’t solely about two people avoiding social services in the New Zealand Bush, it’s about two people who have been robbed of love by terrible circumstances in their lives, thinking they are devoid of this luxury for a reason, not noticing the father-son love between the two that blossoms throughout their entire adventure.
And “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is funny, really funny, much funnier than a lot of comedies that hit theaters today. What’s even better about this beauty is that it’s without pretense, or any sort of ego. This humor flows naturally through the veins of the film, creating a beautifully funny film that never once feels forced or over-the-top, despite the situations sounding like it on paper. Ricky is never bad for the sake of being a bad kid, nor is Hector ever cranky for the sake of being cranky, there’s always a deeper reasoning behind these characters and their world that seemingly is against them. The film never is, simply for the sake of being. “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” has no focus or goal with an audience, it simply has a story to tell, with Waititi’s intuition as a director doing the rest of the work.
Work like this makes me excited to see what Waititi has up his sleeve for his next film, the mega-blockbuster for Marvel “Thor: Ragnarok,” but I hope that he sees the beautiful world that he’s made with these wonderfully magic indie films of the past nine years. The talent of Waititi demands to be seen, and I hope he doesn’t forget his roots with wonderful films like this.
But enough about the future, what exists now? “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is absolutely one of the best films of 2016 so far, if not only for the natural beauty, comedy, adventure and talent that flow through it so beautifully. It’s a smaller, quirky film that never once has an ego about itself and knows exactly how to handle each nuance with wonderfully funny grace. For as many annoying child-adult adventures we’re forced to go on via film studios, this indie finds a way to paint each character as equal to each other, making their journey a learning experience, both physically and emotionally for both of them. Meanwhile, Waititi, while incredibly funny, has a hold on the audience, both physically and emotionally, but “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is so touching and stunning, I never once felt manipulated, I felt free.
Directed by: Taika Waititi
Starring: Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rhys Darby, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House, Oscar Knightley, Tioreore Noatai-Melbourne, Troy Kingi, Cohen Holloway, Stan Walker, Mike Minogue, Hamish Parkinson, Lloyd Scott.
Runtime: 101 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements including violent content, and for some language.
Now playing exclusively at AMC Concord Mills and Regal Ballantyne Village.
The Orchard, Defender Films, Piki Films and Curious Films, in association with The New Zealand Film Commission and NZ On Air present, a film by Taika Waititi, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”