Thursday, September 8, 2016

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

"I've Got Me Own Thing: Ricky-Town. Population: Ricky"

New Zealand Child Services pulls up to a house at the edge of a "million hectares of wilderness" and drops off a lump of a kid, Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison)—an incorrigible ("A real bad egg...He's a bit of a handful—and that's just the stuff we know about")—who's been bounced from foster-home to foster-home and lands here in the care of Bella (Rima Te Wiatta), who couldn't be more delighted with the prospect. 

The kid wanders around the humble farm-house, instantly hates it and gets back in the car, while the CS woman, Paula (Rachel House), talks down just how difficult the kid is. She pulls the kid, Ricky Baker, out of the car (which he does reluctantly) and sniffs: "Alright, time for the inspection!" She stays in place, looks around casually and says "Up to our high standards! Looks fine" and heads out in the local squad car (with a joking "...and remember, no returns!", leaving Bella and Ricky to get acquainted.
Ricky may be a bad egg, but Bella is a good one and she is delighted with the prospect of the Maori pre-teen becoming part of the family. She shows him around the farm—such as it is—and they encounter Hec' (Sam Neill): "You can call him 'uncle' if you like" "No, he can't!" is Hec's gruff reply. Heck is a generally disagreeable sort, off set by Bella's force of nature maternal generosity that seems to overflow, admonishing Hec' when he says at dinner "So, have you ever worked on a farm or are you just ornamental?" Bella has an innate ability to figure out what a kid needs, supplying Ricky with a cozy room, a hot water bottle under the sheets and a large knife on the nightstand "to kill monsters in your dreams."
Although Ricky appreciates the hot water bottle, his nature ("I didn't choose the skuxx life, the skuxx life chose me") compels him to grab a torch and run away, traveling all night in the wilderness until he falls asleep. When he wakes up, there's Bella, congratulating him that he made it that far after traveling all night, and telling him breakfast is ready. He's made it 200 metres. Ricky may fancy himself a bad-ass, but he's clearly a bad-ass with no discernible (or broad) goals. But, breakfast sounds good. He follows Bella back to the farm-house.
Life is relatively good. He and Bella have a good relationship—after Bella kills a wild boar with only a knife, he realizes she has far more street cred than he does—and considering that, after a series of bad matches with foster-homes, his next stop would be "juvey," he decides to make the best of it, making friends with the farm-dog "Dag" and grunting acquaintances with Hec', who sees Ricky as a passing phase, not even being impressed that Ricky composes primitive haikus for his anger management. That fringe of a relationship will be tested by circumstance, forcing the two to come to grips with their situation and each other, as they go on the run in that "million hectares of wilderness," living by their wits and, ultimately, becoming outlaws, running from authorities who have no understanding of their situation. What starts out as an odd-fellow relationship comedy turns into a tall-tale of a chase movie, where two vagabonds discover the value of family, however loose that definition may be.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is odd, quirky, and laugh-out-loud funny, a Twain-ian coming-of-age story (based on the book "Wild Pork and Watercress" by beloved Kiwi author Barry Crump—known affectionately as "Crumpie") adapted by filmmaker Taika Waititi, whose last film was the hilarious vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows. Waititi has the innate ability to mine laughs out of the corners of the lives of outsiders, who must deal with the same everyday inconveniences that we all do, that, combined with their own idiosyncrasies, makes them simultaneously curious and relatable. He is helped immeasurably by kid actor Julian Dennison, who has the inscrutable quality of not appearing to be doing much acting while projecting at full volume, and with a razor-sharp sense of timing in his dialog. As so much of Waititi's humor is pacing, Dennison is an able co-conspirator.
And Sam Neill is a revelation. So much of what he's relied on in the past has been star-charm and a twinkle in the eye, but there's none of those old tricks here. This is some of his best work since his very early unsentimental film days. His "Uncle Hec" is crusty and not very likable, but, like the kid, grows on you the more screen-time he has, which is considerable, as Dennison and Neill soon become the sole focus of the film.

It's one of those rare instances where the less said about the film, the better so as to not spoil it, other than to say that I was actually sorry to see the movie end. And movies like that are getting few and far between.