Review: Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

An orphan finds solace in family and film

By Zeke Trautenberg

Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople is an empathetic portrait of a young man grappling with belonging and loss. The film continues Waititi's exploration of of loneliness, acceptance, and the nature of familythemes which were at the center of the New Zealand filmmaker's previous features Eagle vs. Shark (2007), Boy (2010), and the satirical vampire comedy What We do in the Shadows (2014).

The protagonist of Hunt for the Wilderpeople is Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a pudgy orphan of Maori extraction. Ricky expresses himself in haikus and wears brightly colored clothing that attests to his passion for hip hop, but which masks his sensitive soul. The film begins with Ricky’s transfer from a group home to the New Zealand bush, where he is sent to live with his new foster parents, Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hector (Sam Neill). Ricky’s villainous caseworker and the film's antagonist, Paula (Rachel House), has little hope that the new situation will work out. Before handing Ricky over to his new foster parents, Paula urges them to be vigilant of Ricky, whom she calls a “bad egg.” with a history of stealing stuff, burning stuff, spitting, and loitering, among other mildly antisocial activities.

After halfheartedly escaping from his new foster parents during his first night at their remote house, Ricky adjusts to his unfamiliar rural surroundings. He gradually comes out of his shell, coaxed by his foster mother, who dotes on him with food, takes him hunting for wild pigs, and composes a song in celebration of his birthday on her portable Casio synthesizer. After tragedy befalls the household, Ricky stages his own death-by-burning, and escapes into the vast woods that surround the house. Hector follows him, but after he finds Ricky he injures his leg in a spasm of anger. The two remain in the woods while Hector’s leg heals, but their disappearance triggers a national manhunt.

Waititi’s film takes full advantage of New Zealand’s spectacular scenery. The film opens with an aerial shot of the mountainous forest where Ricky and Hector go on the lam. However, the film does not lose itself in the overwhelming green of the landscape. The subtle and not-so-subtle costumes in the film—a cat sweater, oversized hoodies, red and blue plaid shirts—add to the film’s sympathetic and nuanced portrayal of its characters and reflects the film's playful approach to genre. The synthesizer-inflected score by Moniker provides a contrast between between the foreboding wilderness and the characters' intimate relationships.

The structure of Hunt for the Wilderpeople mirrors the tension between the rigid meter and free rhyme scheme of a haiku. The film is divided into ten chapters and an epilogue, with each chapter title reflecting a place ("Broken Foot Camp"), a shift in fortune ("Turn of the Tide"), or a change in Ricky's perception of himself ("Famous" and "A Normal Life"). The film’s clear structure contrasts with the film’s mishmash of genres, ranging from buddy comedies to Hollywood action movies. The self-reflexive qualities the film’s structure and genre elements extend to its characters. Ricky pokes fun at his weight, while his caseworker acts out her unhinged baddie role with self-aware glee. In the end, even the grumpy and reserved Hector embraces his “bushman” persona and embraces the teenager who helps him come to terms with own grief and loss.

Director: Taika Waititi

Running Time: 101 minutes

Country: New Zealand

Photo: Piki Films/Defender Films/Curious Film

(Published simultaneously in Párrafo 451)