Review: Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

Dir./Written by: Taika Waititi      Genre: Adventure, Comedy, Drama      Run Time: 1hr 41mins

Ever since watching an interview with Sam Neill and Julian Dennison some few months back, I knew I needed to see this film. Film veteran Neill and relative newcomer Dennison’s rapport is something close to perfection; and, let’s face it, a kid whose comic timing is under the direction of Taika Waititi can only be a good thing.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is based on New Zealand novelist Barry Crump’s Wild Pork and Watercress (1986). For all intents and purposes, this film sounds like it shouldn’t work. Much like its source material, any attempt at describing it leads to images of a sentimentality-laden sob story or a saccharine coming-of-age tale that is trite with clichés and predictable lines.

Believe me, Hunt for the Wilderpeople works; it thrives in its eccentricity.

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“That’s not very fair. Some people can’t even have babies, and the ones who can, they don’t even want them.”

Teenager Ricky (Dennison) is first introduced to us, and his new foster family, as “a real bad egg.” He’s been passed around foster homes, getting in trouble for a number of juvenile delinquencies (namely graffiti and loitering). His welfare officer, Paula (Rachel House) takes “No Child Left Behind” as a threat, not a comfort, focusing on Ricky like a problem that needs to be solved – she even refers to herself as the Terminator (and she’s not far off).

From the moment Ricky steps foot out of the police car, you know you’re going to like him.  From his confident array of brightly coloured clothing and passion for anything “gangsta”, it doesn’t take long for the self-assured young man to show signs of vulnerability – something that (I imagine) would take years of acting experience to perfect. Dennison’s performance, however, is effortless.

Ricky’s new mother, Bella (Rima Te Wiata), the kind of woman who wears sweaters with cat faces on them and hugs with her whole body. But Bella is no softie. She wins Ricky over with endearing honesty and radiant affection. As noted by Brian Tallerico, there’s a telling but brief exchange in which Bella and Ricky see some wild horses and Ricky asks if he can ride them. She responds,

“Why do they need to be ridden anyway? Why can’t they just eat grass and be happy?” She’s essentially telling Ricky she’ll give him the same freedom – Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com

However, all good things must come to an end.

Ricky ends up on the run and plans to take matters into his own hands, living off the land with his dog Tupac. Eventually, he’s tracked and found by Bella’s husband Hec (Sam Neill), who gets injured, delaying their return to civilization long enough that the authorities come looking.

A manhunt for the duo begins.

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The film’s stealth weapon is Neill, “whose typical canny underplaying complements everyone else’s broader notes while lending both the comic and dramatic elements extra ballast” – Variety Reviewer.

What struck me first about this film was not, as you may imagine, New Zealand’s jaw-dropping scenery. (While the country’s geography never ceases to amaze, it’s like a fine supporting actor, not the main star.)

What struck me, initially, was the film’s use of humour – and what a surprise that was. (I know, I know, the film is a comedy) Who’d have thought the Kiwi’s had such dry humour? Waititi’s characters say things that, sure, we’re all thinking, but British cinema wouldn’t dare contain for fear of offending someone.

See below:

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Bella: [to Ricky] What you wanna do, you hungry? That’s a silly question, isn’t it? Look at you.
My 10-year-old brother could not stop laughing at this. The line was just so unexpected, so soon. This woman, having just been warned that her new foster child is a tad sensitive, comes out with that?!

Amazing. Truly, it sets the tone for the entire film.

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Taika Waititi has a remarkable knack for making films that are enjoyable. If you haven’t already experienced What We Do in the Shadows (2014) I urge you to. Never would I have thought I’d enjoy a mockumentary horror comedy film about vampires so much.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is another fine example of Waititi’s mastery of the understated. The down-to-earth characters, witty (often hilarious) dialogue and inventive filmmaking has come together to form this fine film.

Crucially, Waititi’s film never judges. There are a choice selection of eccentric characters that very well could have been made the butt of a few jokes. Refreshingly, however, they’re not. Every character in this film keeps themselves to themselves and we respect them for it; emotion drives the film, not aesthetics or contrived criticisms of character.

“Dennison, Waititi and Neill find depth within the characters, as small moments become the foundation for the film’s emotion. They don’t play the coming-of-age arc, they play the reality of each scene” – Brian Tallerico

I won’t go any further with description (as much as I’d like to) to prevent spoiling your experience.

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Look out for an explicit LotR reference that you’ll probably shout out just before the characters do.

I watched this film at a very strange time in my life – truthfully, I didn’t know whether I could manage another semester of my Masters degree.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople has actually ended up inspiring me to shift my focus onto the films of New Zealand as an area of study. It has revived my joie de veuve in academia. For the first time in a while, I’m actually excited about a project.

If that isn’t praise for the film, I don’t know what else is.


Trust me.

Watch Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

UK readers, it’s available on Netflix right now!


Thanks for reading, you skux. I’m off to study.

One thought on “Review: Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

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