The Drive-In Theater: Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Will Schube examines Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and how its simple story translates well to current American turmoil.
By    July 20, 2016

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Will Schube only plagiarizes Nancy Reagan.

Sometimes low stakes are better than lofty goals. Aiming to be simply good can be—well, good. Through this lens, Hunt for the Wilderpeople achieves great things. Good ideas executed simply and thoroughly can yield ends beyond their means.

Wilderpeople, a film from New Zealand helmed by Taika Waititi (who also directed and acted in 2014’s wonderful What We Do in the Shadows), is at times silly, hysterical, heartbreaking, and formulaic. But if independent film is to exist in any capacity as our screens get smaller, films like Hunt for the Wilderpeople are vital to a healthy filmic economy with movies of all shapes and sizes.

Led by an adorably pudgy boy named Ricky (Julian Dennison), Wilderpeople is a classic chase tale in which two incompatible people are forced to work together to succeed. Ricky is paired with his adopted guardian, [SPOILER, I guess:] Hec (Sam Neill) after Hec’s wife Bella (Rima Te Wiata) dies. Hec lacks compassion and fatherly instincts; Bella embraces Ricky as the child she never had. Ricky tries to run away a few times, only succeeding after he’s to be taken away from Hec because Bella dies.

Ricky accidentally burns down Hec’s farmhouse in a hilariously ill-conceived attempt at disguise, and Hec finds him deep in the New Zealand brush not moments after Ricky’s last attempted run away. Hec breaks his leg and gets mislabeled nationally as a pervert. Bad day at the office. The duo’s disappearance triggers a national search, and poachers and cops alike attempt to hunt them down. The shenanigans outweigh the story they support, but Dennison and Neill work so well together you could watch them watch grass grow and find something to laugh at.

The movie’s most heartwarming moments come towards the film’s end, after Ricky’s bad habits and childish shenanigans nearly kill them both. Rhys Darby (Murray from Flight of the Conchords) charms in a bit part and Ricky’s lust for gangsterism (from a childhood of watching Scarface) eventually fades away and turns into a genuine relationship with people that care about him.

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And during a time when the disenfranchised in our country are taking radically different approaches to the real (BLM) and perceived (Don’t tread on me!) oppression of their marginalization, it’d do many a favor to take a serious note from this lighthearted yet wonderful movie about a child trying to escape his past and a father figure that can’t be bothered to do much but chastise. Realizing that you’re not the only thing that matters can go a long way, it’s just that far too few of us do.

This is one of the wonderful parts about this movie and film in general: Wilderpeople is neither about America today nor our insane, crockpot of racists and a big, orange haired nutbag. Not even close. But when the other side feels so insane, taking a step back and projecting your world onto an unrelated fiction that ends well and is happy is a nice break. It’s sort of the point of film: to escape, if only for an hour or two. America doesn’t need to be great. Just make it good. 

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Rating: See this movie.