After outstaying his welcome in the city, orphaned juvenile delinquent and wannabe gangsta rapper Ricky (Julian Dennison) is shipped out to the countryside and the chance of a fresh start with new foster parents the bubbly Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and grizzled curmudgeonly ex-con Hec (Sam Neill).
Rebellious and hostile at first, Ricky soon bonds with the loving and eccentric Bella who brings out his sweeter, more vulnerable nature. Tragedy strikes however and, facing the threat of juvenile hall until he’s 18, Ricky and pet dog Tupac head off into the Bush, determined to stay a step ahead of the state, forcing Hec to come after them.
Taika Waititi has crafted in Hunt For The Wilderpeople a sweet, poignant, feel-good family film
But when a series of unfortunate events leads to the authorities assuming that Hec has kidnapped Ricky, the bickering odd couple find themselves forced to go on the run together, pursued by the cops, the army, mercenary hunters and Ricky’s Terminator-esque social worker Paula (Rachel House) whose mantra of “No child left behind!” sounds more like a threat. Unlikely outlaws, Ricky and Hec become folk heroes, the titular Wilderpeople.
Funny, charming and featuring a genuinely devastating Up-moment in its first act that had the Edinburgh Film Festival audience I saw it with in floods of tears, What We Do In The Shadows director Taika Waititi has crafted in Hunt For The Wilderpeople a sweet, poignant, feel-good family film with a dark seam of humour that never allows its unashamed sentimentality to smother it.
Neill and Dennison are fantastic together, their chemistry electric, their bickering slowly transforming into a realistic mutual respect and affection, Dennison funny and likably engaging without ever being child actor nauseating while Neill’s cantankerous, gruff bushman is among his best performances in years. There’s strong support too from Rachel House and Oscar Knightley as bumbling inept pursuers Paula and Officer Andy, Flight Of The Conchords veteran Rhys Darby popping up as deranged off-grid recluse Psycho Sam who shelters Ricky and Hec while Rima Te Wiata is wonderful and lovable as the bouncy, cheerful Bella.
A mish-mash of mismatched buddy movie and coming of age tale, Hunt For The Wilderpeople holds few surprises, you’ve seen this tale before a hundred, a thousand, times, you know practically every emotional beat and it shouldn’t work any more. But it does, Waititi bringing a freshness and mischievous energy to proceedings, confidently painting on a broader canvas than he’s had before to create a film the illiterate Hec might term “majestical!”
A good-natured, exciting, funny, freewheeling adventure, Hunt For The Wilderpeople may just be the year’s best family film.