Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople is told from the point of view of a chubby, self-confident orphan, Ricky (Julian Dennison), with a rich inner life who composes haikus for fun. As the film begins, he’s delivered to the last foster home willing to take him in, a small farm carved out of the edge of New Zealand’s bush country. Ricky has a bit of trouble in his past and fancies himself an outlaw, but he’s really a goodhearted kid, as his enthusiastic and intuitive foster mother, Bella (Rima Te Wiata), sees from the start.
The film’s childlike point of view gives it the slightly fabulous, exaggerated quality of a fairy tale, even as it deals with some pretty tough subjects. Ricky barely has time to settle into his new home, relaxing into Bella’s love while learning to tune out her glowering, monosyllabic husband, Hector (Sam Neill), than Bella drops dead and leaves Ricky alone with Hector, whose grief makes him even more taciturn. Then Hector retreats into the bush after telling Ricky to go back to the city, since the boy knows nothing about surviving outdoors. But Ricky insists on roughing it too, sure that he’d be put into juvie if he went back into the system, so the two wind up living in the bush for weeks.
The grit of Ricky and Hector’s situation is sanded down enough to remove any worries that might get in the way of the audience’s enjoyment. They’re never shown as being hungry or cold, for instance, and it rarely seems that they’re in any real danger from the guns that are periodically aimed at them, even in the Thelma-and-Louise-style chase scene that leads to their capture, in which they’re pursued by a phalanx of vehicles including a chopper and a tank.
Instead, the focus is mainly on the slowly and believably evolving relationship between Ricky and Hector and the picaresque pleasures of the life they share in the bush with their dogs and the mostly friendly strangers they encounter. Now and then the film checks in with Ricky’s Wiley Coyote-like child-welfare worker, Paula (Rachel House), her sidekick, Andy (Oscar Kightley), and the other pursuers who join in to hunt the odd couple as the state puts a bounty on their heads and the news media drums up interest in their disappearance, flogging (and distorting) the story of the missing man and boy.
In films like What We Do in the Shadows and Eagle vs. Shark and TV shows like Flight of the Conchords, Waititi exhibits a special fondness for misfits, giving their emotions their due while surfacing the humor in their self-serious absurdity. He does the same here, finding humor and love in a potentially grim situation without ever belittling or caricaturing his main characters.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 13—24.