Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople infuses an outdoorsy survival tale and a coming-of-age story of friendship with the filmmaker’s penchant for distaff flakiness. These elements go together surprisingly well, particularly in how Waititi uses humor to ease the delivery of certain clichés and platitudes. For instance, when Ricky (Julian Dennison) is dropped off at his new foster home somewhere in the New Zealand countryside, he takes a quick look at the ramshackle property and quietly slips back into the police car that brought him there. When Ricky’s new foster “aunt,” Bella (Rima Te Wiata), comments on the boy’s considerable girth, she does so with an awkward bluntness that testifies both to her nervousness and her empathetic ability to home in precisely on what bothers him. These moments inform Hunt for the Wilderpeople with poignant absurdist wit. Waititi doesn’t force the pathos of a lonely child coming to live with an eccentric aging couple; instead, he lands jokes that serve a purpose of sideways characterization.
Waititi has other aces up his sleeve, notably Sam Neill’s performance as Bella’s husband, “Uncle” Hec, who initially distrusts Ricky but grows to love him. Neill has always radiated an unusual mixture of authority and uncertainty as an actor, and he puts that aura to evocative use playing an illiterate country man who’s called on to rescue Ricky from the wilds when the boy runs away in the midst of tragedy. Sporting a burly beard and elegantly scraggly clothes, Neill contrasts Hec’s physical ability with the man’s fear and self-hatred, which manifests themselves as contempt for Ricky that morphs into respect. Correspondingly, Neill doesn’t condescend to Dennison, as well-known actors sometimes do to inexperienced child performers. Neill often recedes from Dennison in the frame, granting the latter an authority by proxy that strengthens the agency of both performances. The film pivots on a physical/mental inverse: Hec’s more vulnerable than he appears to be, while Ricky, a soft, posh city boy, is much tougher than anyone might imagine.
As charming and touching as Hunt for the Wilderpeople often is, it also boasts an impression of inconsequentiality that’s characteristic of Waititi’s work. The wilderness of the New Zealand locales are beautiful, but they don’t feel wild. Waititi shoots the forests like many comedy directors film locations, flattening them out as sets for jokes, and as such taming them. Many anecdotes go on longer than they need to, leading to listlessness that underlines the inevitability of Hec and Ricky redeeming one another. And many of the jokes are clever but self-consciously minor, causing one to smile or giggle, but never to truly give in to the humor of a situation. Waititi’s talented, but too humble and tentative. One always leaves his films not entirely fulfilled.