Ricky (Julian Dennison), a 12-year-old Maori boy, obsessed with rap songs, is brought to a remote New Zealand farm run by Hec (Sam Neill) and his wife, Bella (Rima Te Wiata). Hec and Bella are going to be his foster aunt and uncle for the next few months. The caseworker describes Ricky as “A bad egg. We’re talking disobedience, stealing, spitting, running away, throwing rocks, kicking stuff, loitering, and graffiti.” Ricky looks around the farm very quickly and decides he doesn’t want to stay. He is told by the case worker who makes him get back out of the police car “There is no one else who wants you.” Bella right away tries to make Ricky feel at home, giving him a hug, but Ricky doesn’t like it there and decides to run away that night. He is found by Hec and his dog the next morning, no more than 200 yards from the house.
Slowly but surely Bella works her charm, and Ricky gradually grows to like living on the farm; that is if he can stay out of the sights of Hec, who barely tolerates the boy. Bellas nightly checks in with Ricky before he goes to bed, and her warm personality, wear down the hard shell that Ricky has developed from living in foster homes. Bella takes Ricky on hunting trips, teaching the young boy how to shoot a rifle and how to bring down wild hogs. He realizes that he just might have a home here with Bella and Hec when they celebrate his birthday (a first) and give him his own dog, which he promptly names Tupac. That all comes crashing down when Ricky comes home from playing with his dog and discovers Hec crying over the dead Bella, who has collapsed out in the yard. A few days later, Hec tells Ricky that he has to give him up to the case worker, and Ricky knows his next stop will be juvenile detention. He decides to run away, but Hec finds Ricky a few days into his escape attempt out in the bush. On their way back, Hec gets his foot caught in a root and fractures his ankle. Now he is going to have to depend on the boy to help him recover before they can complete their journey, a journey that will take them on one big adventure that will change both their lives.
It’s no secret that Taika Waititi is one of my favorite filmmakers out there. He was written and directed some of the most inventive films of the past ten years. His lineup, most of which is set in his native New Zealand, includes “Eagle vs Shark” (2007), “Boy” (2012) and “ What We Do in the Shadows.” He has brought us another gem with the funny and touching adventure film “Hunt for the Wilderpeople.” This is a joyous film that celebrates that people, no matter how different their personalities are, can still find comfort and love in shared experiences. Waititi is subtle in his building of scenes, letting us enjoy small moments like Ricky pretending to dance to a Walkman he made of grass as Hec looks on in wonderment. It’s those little scenes that let us get inside the characters and see how they interact with each other. Waititi treats his characters with a reverence that makes us like and root for the city kid and the gruff bushman. The film is broken up into chapters as the story unfolds and as the movie moves at a comfortable pace, with lots of humor thrown in. The cinematography by Lachlan Milne, makes the lush New Zealand bush country seem like a character all on its own. I loved the score of the film, by the team of Lukasz Pawel Buda, Samuel Scott, and Conrad Wedde. The music in the movie significantly contributes to the over feel and pace of the film.
The chemistry of Neill and Dennison is thick on the screen as the two play off each other incredibly well. As you would expect, Neill is spot on as the man who has little time for Ricky’s antics. It’s Dennison that makes this movie work so well. His knack for physical comedy while also being able to tone it down when necessary is magical. There are some brilliant scenes where the two characters try to find common ground, as they struggle even to find the right words to communicate with each other. Rima Te Wiata is brilliant as the big-hearted Aunty Bella. Wiata portrays Bella as a force of nature that neither Hic or Ricky will be able to resist. Rachel Hall is hilarious as the obsessed social worker who is determined to hunt down Ricky as she spouts off inappropriate catch phrases such as “No child left behind.”