“Hunt for the Wilderpeople”
1 hour, 41 minutes
Over the nearly two decades I’ve been reviewing movies between these pages, I feel like I’ve written at least a dozen times about how dismal the options for movies are in the bumper season between summer and fall. The fact that I’ve gone on about it ad nauseum, however, doesn’t change the fact that the options are pretty dismal!
This week saw the release of the sequel/relaunch of the “Blair Witch” franchise. Trailers hyping this as “more terrifying than the original,” are just not selling me, especially since I found the original legitimately terrifying. I could see three possible outcomes to seeing that movie. Either A.) It is more terrifying than the original, in which case I definitely am too old to relive that; B.) It isn’t more terrifying than the original in which case, why go?; or C.) The movie isn’t more terrifying, just gorier, in which case see option A. There was also “Bridget Jones Baby” out this weekend, but despite relatively positive reviews, my interest in this film was so slight as to be non-existent. Sorry Renee Zellwegger.
So, yeah, not a lot to see. However, unlike the situation when I started this column, lo those many years ago, these days there are alternatives when there’s nothing on in theaters. This week I picked a new release, just not one that will likely ever come to the Kenai. Taika Waititi, New Zealand-based filmmaker best known for work on the show “Flight of the Conchords,” as well as last year’s surprisingly successful “What We Do in the Shadows,” a mockumentary about vampires living among us, brings us “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” a quirky dramedy with a brilliantly low-key style and perfect performances from Sam Neill, Rima Te Wiata, and newcomer Julian Dennison.
Dennison plays Ricky Baker, a 12-year-old n’er-do-well who is working his way through the New Zealand foster child system on his way to juvenile prison. As his caseworker is fond of recounting, Ricky is known for throwing stuff, defacing stuff, stealing stuff, and kicking stuff. His last stop is at the remote home of Bella and Hec, she a patient saint with a soft spot for lost causes, and he a former lost cause himself.
As difficult as Ricky, and Hec, for that matter, can be, Bella makes a home and brings the boy back from the precipice, giving him a safe place where he is understood. His reverence for hip-hop culture notwithstanding, Ricky thrives in the country, learning to hunt and respect the land. Bella teaches him what he needs to know, encourages the recalcitrant Hec to be more sociable, and even gets Ricky a dog, which the boy names Tupac.
All seems idyllic until a tragedy forces Ricky and Hec into the wilderness, on the run from the law and with only one another to depend on.
“Wilderpeople” is funny, sweet, emotional and utterly charming. Dennison turns in the kind of performance that is so authentic as to make you wonder if he is truly acting or just playing himself. I guess the test will be to see if he ever appears in film again. I hope so, but not as Hollywood would cast him — as the fat kid — a walking joke.
Ricky is a real kid, and though the movie is light and funny, there’s real weight to his character. Sam Neill, as Hec, turns in what is probably the finest, and most understated performance of his career. He completely inhabits this tough, though ultimately brittle character.
Just as her character is in the film, Rima Te Wiata, a veteran of mostly New Zealand television, is a stable force in the story — her solid, likable character making the entire rest of the story possible.
I was in love with all three of the leads. The film is peppered with quirky side characters, each of which brings his or her own humanity to the role. Taika Waititi himself has a hilarious cameo as a preacher. Though the movie is light and intimate in scope, it manages to encompass an almost epic plot, a tale which goes from solid family drama in the beginning to “Thelma and Louise” by the end.
I really, really liked “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” and if you are looking for something just a little quirky but never disturbing or gross, New Zealand’s latest export may be for you.
“Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is rated PG-13 for language and brief scenes of violence.
Chris Jenness is an art teacher, graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.