Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a 2016 film by writer/director Taika Waititi who was previously better known for his low-budget hit What We Do in the Shadows . Wilderpeople is based on a novel by Barry Crump called Wild Pork and Watercress and tells the story of Ricky Baker, a troubled orphan who is placed in the care of foster parents, Aunt Bella and Uncle Hector. When Ricky and his Uncle Hec (Sam Neill) disappear into the New Zealand bush, their disappearance sparks a national manhunt.
A Tale of Two Misfits… Wilderpeople is not a complex story, but it is a great and charming and somewhat zany story. Both energetic and moving at once, it’s difficult to not get swept up in this far-fetched adventure of two misfits’ reluctant friendship. Like the ocean’s tide, this story has a rhythmic ebb and flow. There’s defeat and triumph, humor and sadness —all of which make Wilderpeople a satisfying and balanced story. At the end of the day, this is a tale of two loners: both of whom have been dealt a crappy hand; both of whom refuse to concede to their circumstances — all of which make it touching and relatable.
Tragedy + Silliness = Comedy… Wilderpeople is hilarious. For the fans of the humor in What We Do in the Shadows, Wilderpeople will not disappoint. Waititi has a distinct comedic voice and it’s evident in the way he writes, the way he cuts, and the way he juxtaposes his scenes. By adding a touch of silliness and occasionally incorporating the element of surprise into, what would normally be, the very serious, Waititi manages to make even the banalest or depressing of things — like lists or death —amusing. For instance, in recounting the laundry list of Ricky Baker’s so-called misdemeanors, instead of using terms like “truancy” or “delinquency” he uses a slew of informal descriptors like “spitting, running away, throwing rocks, kicking stuff” and the result is the deliberate construction of a very specific, very silly tone. In another instance, when Aunt Holly speaks to Ricky about the various comforts he can find in his room, instead of having Holly show Ricky around, Waititi uses a series of quick cuts to the various items, in close-up, that Holly speaks about. It’s an energetic way of representing what would normally be a run-of-the-mill conversation. Many elements from this film are worth remarking upon, but the most remarkable aspect of this film is its humor. In a landscape of lackluster, wildly unfunny, and formulaic comedies, Wilderpeople is a breath of fresh air. Viewers should prepare for big laughs, haikus, and Rhys Darby, who is, as always, excellent. He plays a small, but memorable character very simply called “Psycho Sam” and the moniker is accurately descriptive.
Behold: A Unicorn… Wilderpeople is picturesque. This is actually to say that New Zealand is picturesque and it shouldn’t only be associated with Lord of the Rings as Waititi showcases New Zealand to great effect with Wilderpeople. Of course, to compare the two would be a case of apples and oranges. Waititi’s film is only comparable to Lord of the Rings broadly in that both involve what would be considered a group of protagonists running away from a group of antagonists. And as if aware that the LOTR legacy looms large over New Zealand’s head, Waititi actually references the high fantasy series at one point in the film for a snippet of metatextual humor. And perhaps, this actually brings everything full circle back to humor. Though at its heart, Wilderpeople actually deals with some dark subject matter and a lot of sadness — humor is infused into every fiber of this film. How do you celebrate a birthday, in the film, without dealing with Birthday Song royalties and using a lame substitute like, “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”? Simple. Have a character invent a deeply personal, almost cacophonous, intensely embarrassing birthday anthem to both maximize silliness and provide an offbeat filmmaking solution. How do you deal with the sudden loss of a loved one? Have a zany priest conduct the funeral service. All of this is to say that Waititi’s film feels like it has a distinct personality and point of view: it comes across in how his characters interact with each other; how his characters interact with their environment; and how they solve (or worsen) their problems. this is a special, sui generis film just like how New Zealand is a special, sui generis place. Many of the films that I enjoy are not necessarily films that I would recommend to everyone, but Wilderpeople isn’t one of those films; I emphatically recommend this film to everyone.