Review: The Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)


New Zealand director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows) returns with his latest feature; a heartwarming and irreverent fish out of water story set in the New Zealand bush that is easily among the best films of 2016. Check out our review after the jump.


2016 has been a banner year for independent film releases. As mainstream box office releases increasingly bank on comic book adaptations and remakes to make their bottom line, smaller filmmakers have taken the torch of telling risky, unique, and original stories and have been rewarding filmgoers all year. Films like The Lobster, Swiss Army Man and Green Room are among the year’s best films and Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople may just be a top contender for 2016’s best film thus far.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople centers on a surly, heavyset, Maori tween named Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison). Ricky has bounced around from foster home to foster home in New Zealand all his life and has developed quite a heavy chip on his shoulder. He listens to gangster rap and idolizes Tupac Shakur, even sporting an oversized varsity jacket with the name of Tupac’s album “All Eyez On Me” on the back. Ricky’s case worker Paula (Rachel House in a great comedic role) doesn’t think of him as much more than a hooligan; a kid who loves “spitting, breaking things, burning things, kicking things, graffiti” and little else. But Ricky’s latest foster “aunt,” Bella Faulker (Rima Te Wiata) sees Ricky as someone who needs a little bit of love and attention. She gives him hot water bottles for his bed so that he knows he is cared about, she lets him run away as long as he is back for breakfast in the morning. Bella is a bush woman, she can hunt boar with a knife and skin pelts – but at heart she is a softie and collects stray people like her partner Hector (Sam Neill). Hector loves Bella, but is a gruff bush hunter who doesn’t take to Ricky, even as Ricky comes to love Bella and they form a unit. However, tragedy strikes and Ricky finds himself on the verge of ending up back in the foster system that has let him down and runs away after setting a fire. Hector sets off after him and along the way is hurt, setting up a series of unfortunate and unintended circumstances that sees him and Ricky become national outlaws in New Zealand being hunted by Paula and the police.

To spoil anymore of Hunt for the Wilderpeople would be a crime and even this synopsis is a broad one so as to leave as much to the audience’s discovery as possible. Waititi’s film is heartwarming and hilarious; an ode to the rebellious but well-natured kid inside us all. The film is reminiscent of films like Stand by Me and The Legend of Billie Jean in its treatment of serious issues seen in the lens of a child. The wilderness setting for most of the film serves a similar function as it does in Swiss Army Man; allowing us to see these characters at their core. Sam Neill gives his best performance in years as Hector; giving us a complete arc that sees him transform from a gruff and distant loner to a man looking to be useful as he allows himself to listen to his feelings and grow. Julian Dennison gives an amazing performance; reminiscent of Kieran Culkin in Igby Goes Down or Craig Roberts in Richard Ayode’s 2010 film Submarine. His Ricky Baker will linger in your mind for a long time after seeing this film and his performance grounds the film and is easily relatable. Waititi also cameos in his film and his brief role as a church chaplain is memorable and hilarious. Neill and Dennison’s chemistry contributes to much of the film’s humor and the two have a great combative yet caring relationship. I was reminded of the 2014 film St. Vincent featuring Bill Murray in a similar role of reluctant parent figure to that film’s Jaeden Lieberher; one of a cantankerous man set in his ways and a boy that shows him how vital he still can be even if can’t see it. The many characters they come across in their journey make this film quite the cinematic adventure and a classic in the making.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is one of the year’s best films and will likely end up on many critics shortlist for Oscar contention. It is easily Waititi’s best film and relentlessly quotable. If you’re not humming Ricky’s birthday song by the end of the film, then you need to reassess if you love movies.