dir: Taika Waititi
Sometimes you watch a trailer and say to yourself “I must watch that movie.” Sometimes you watch the movie, and think “That movie was nothing like the trailer, and now I am sad.” Other times you watch the movie and say “that was exactly like the trailer, but eh.”
But this time? This time? I was really excited about seeing Hunt for the Wilderpeople, we saw it (as a family), and I loved it thoroughly and utterly.
Perhaps we shouldn’t have seen it as a family? I thought it would skirt the edges of its PG rating, but it kinda went a tad further than I would have expected. Having your nine-year-old daughter ask you out loud at the Westgarth Cinema on a Friday night “What’s a molesterer?” is perhaps a conversation for another time.
I was, at least in some respects, pre-programmed to enjoy this. I loved Waititi’s film Boy, liked What We Do In the Shadows, and occasionally enjoyed Flight of the Conchords (the tv show he occasionally directed, whereas the band will always rank in my heart as the greatest musicians to ever come out of New Zealand except for all the other ones).
Taika makes some very quirky movies, filled to the brim with quirky characters and 80s aesthetics. Sometimes it’s oppressive. Sometimes it gibes just right with the material. In this case, it’s a pretty good fit (in terms of the actors, the quirks, and the story).
There’s no value in trying to talk about this flick as a drama. In reality, it is a drama more than a comedy, though it’s still a very funny film. But the relentless quirkiness constantly or consistently disarms scenes that would otherwise come across as too heavy or dramatic, which robs them (slightly) of their impact. It’s not a criticism, per se, because it’s probably the right choice on the director’s part to lighten the material.
The film is based on a novel called Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump, but I can virtually guarantee two things, even never having read the book: there is no way the tone and the humour, and Ricky’s entire character, comes from that book.
The setting and the grim survivalism, the brutal hunting and such, definitely, but not the rest.
Why can I say that with such an arrogant level of certainty? Consider this: the author Barry Crump was the actual living, breathing personification of the gruff, stoic, mostly miserable character Sam Neill plays here as Uncle Hector. He lived that life as the New Zealand equivalent of the Marlboro Man; the living embodiment of rugged individualism and masculinity with a Kiwi flavour. Does it sound like he’d be the one making jokes about being a gangsta or making remarks about becoming a sensation on social media?
Nah. Crump’s novels were popular for decades for good reason, the way that Bear Grylls is way popular with people who never leave their couch: they too can dream that they have what it takes to survive off the land with only their wits and a rifle, even if they cry when stuck in traffic or see a GP when they stub their toe.
Sam Neill has played many characters in many movies, but rarely does he get to play someone so gruff, so stoic, and (initially) unsympathetic. I mean, he’s played lawyers and palaeontologists and psychotics and such, but no-one this inarticulate and emotionally closed off.
Clearly he’s a stand in for the author. Clearly, also, this isn’t the first time I’ve ever seen a movie where a gruff older person, bitter and cut off from life, learns to live and love again because of some younger person. I’m not going to bother looking Up how many of these St Vincent-like movies exist while I drive around in my Gran Torino eating Wild Strawberries, but it’s a staple plot as old as cinema.
The heart and soul of the film, though, is Ricky (Julian Dennison), a juvenile delinquent and orphan who no-one wants and who wants nothing. Social worker Paula (Rachel House) is demented, but passionate about her job, and yet she still introduces Ricky to his new foster parents as if he is the spawn of Satan or Donald Trump himself.
As far as we can tell, because we see footage of Ricky doing it, he’s shoplifted some stuff, knocked over a letter box, dragged the letter box around, whacked the same letter box, set the letter box on fire, and committed the darkest of dark crimes, being graffiti saying rude words.
In short, as Paula informs us, and the chapter heading tells us, Ricky is a real Bad Egg.
You’ve got to watch out for bad eggs, cuz. They’re nothing but trouble.
Bella (Rima Te Wiata) doesn’t mind, though. Other than constantly making jokes about Ricky’s weight (which you would think would mark her as a villain, at least to those of us who aren’t Size 2s), she offers Ricky a gentle and generous kind of love that he seems never to have experienced in his twelve years thus far on the planet.
Of course he’s wary of it, and wary of Bella and her husband Hector (Neill). Hector, in no uncertain terms, has no positive opinions about anything, especially the kid.
He just wants to be left alone, to smoke his rollies, and to perfect his crazed mountain man dishevelled beard / appearance before he goes to work for a quirky inner city microbrewery.
Ricky don’t care. He’s won over (by Bella), not because of the food or the gentle mockery, but by the placing of a hot water bottle in his bed to warm it up before he goes to sleep. Sure, you can argue that it’s too obvious, but it’s a simple and sweet way to depict a level of care that someone could otherwise miss, no matter how basic.
Being from the city, and being the cliché of a contemporary child who is too lazy and dependent on technology to be able to do anything for themselves (an opinion on the youth of the day as slackarses and wastrels that probably dates back to the ancient Babylonians and probably even before them), Ricky takes a long time to come around. It takes a terrible misfortune and going on the run through the wilderness for this to happen, but it’s something, at least, that propels the story forward.
Conversely, though, he seems to be a fairly happy-go-lucky kid, despite some of the horrible circumstances he’s lived through. In case I haven’t already made it somewhat clear, though this has a PG rating (one which fooled me into thinking this was an appropriate movie for a family with a nine-year-old), there is some awful stuff referred to in this flick. When, later on, Ricky starts opening up about his life and experiences to grim Hector, he talks about one of his only friends, another orphaned kid who it’s strongly implied met her end at the hands of one of her foster parents.
It’s only very obliquely spoken about, but it was enough to horrify parents like me in the audience. And then there’s the even more problematic aspect where a section of New Zealand society start thinking something bad is happening to Ricky because of Hector. Like, the worst thing imaginable, and yet the film tries keeping it light by never mentioning the actual offence (which Ricky plays an unfortunate but innocent role in by giving a speech to a trio of knucklehead hunters about the stuff Hector ‘forced’ him to do (in terms of chores for survival stuff) which is horribly misunderstood.
Hilarity ensues. Well, maybe not. Well, maybe yes. A lot yes.
This flick is very funny, very entertaining, for me. The relationship that builds up between Hector and Ricky is a joy to behold. Neither of them really change, as people, as characters, but they don’t have to for this to still be meaningful.
And very funny. I am pretty sure Taika Waititi is the funniest director working in New Zealand, but I realise that doesn’t mean much. He’s going to get his chance to shine in the big leagues directing the next (hopefully last) Thor flick, but where he really shines for me is in the little quirky small scale stuff. Sure, his characters seem to be all too quirky to within an inch of their lives (except Hector, who does not fuck around, or ever crack even a smile), but they’re still, dare I say it, grounded characters who feel real. Ricky, especially. The kid playing him is a revelation. How a kid can get so much mileage out of basic body language and attitude is miraculous to me. It was a joy to watch him and Sam Neill, someone we take for granted for all the great stuff he’s done (though probably because of the mediocre stuff), but they worked well together in the most photogenic and filmable landscape on God’s green earth.
Maybe the ending has its cake and eats it too, but I didn’t care, because it felt like they earned an ending far happier than you thought it had any right to be. I’m not ashamed to say I teared up at the end. The large middle-aged Maori chap in the seat in front of me was wiping a few embarrassed tears away at the same moment, so that tells you two things: it’s a good film, and real beefy men can still cry (in a non-sport related context) and not lose their precious masculinity.
9 times I agree that Ricky’s a dead-set legend too out of 10
“Kingi you wanker / You asshole, I hate you heaps / Please die soon, in pain.” – who says there’s no room for poetry in modern movies? – Hunt for the Wilderpeople