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.