Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Something in the DNA of a flick like Hunt For The Wilderpeople directly engages my passionately cultivated quirky indie-flick cynicism gland.

Quirky. If you’re of similar disposition to your faithful cultural attaché, that very term will trigger a pulsating crimson Dario Argento montage in your mind’s eye, a nauseating staccato burst of ‘quirky indie-flick’ tropes:

A cast of oddball, ‘eccentric’ buffoons? Zany, dissonant musical cues? Self-conscious, hand-wrought typography? Grim natural light mise en scene contrasted with a self consciously twee production aesthetic?

It all sets my zero tolerance ‘contrived Wes Anderson tosh’ palate right on bloody, bile-flecked edge, it does.It would be an understatement to say I came to writer/ director Taika Waititi’s (he of 2014’s barmy vampire mockumentary, What We Do In The Shadows) fourth feature* with a reservation or two. Just what does Hunt For The Wilderpeople, this latest rapturously feted slice of outré Kiwi cinema, actually entail, then?

Ricky Baker (newcomer Julian Dennison), a hefty lad on the brink of his teens, is a perpetual ward of the state, all “gangsta” affectations, sullen ‘tude and boasting a rap sheet chockers with bored kid misdemeanors. Rock throwing, letterbox burning, tagging and even, gasp, spitting.

Nicked again by child welfare agent Paula (Rachel House) and the gormless Officer Andy (Oscar Kightley), Ricky is delivered to his last-chance-before-juvie foster home in the forest-bound Te Urewera hill country of New Zealand’s north island.

It’s on this rundown farm that he meets his new foster ‘uncle and aunty’- curmudgeonly crank Hector (Sam Neill) and his kooky missus, Bella (Rema Te Wiata).

It’s not long until Ricky gives an escape bid a crack, with predictable ‘city kid meets great outdoors’ results. And it’s not long after that that Ricky and the surly Hector are thrown together on a fraught outdoors escapade that develops into a nationwide manhunt involving the Terminator-like (her words) Paula (motto: “No children left behind!”), a few bumbling hunters and an increasingly absurd military response.

Ably evoking tourist-baiting Lord of the Rings grandeur, cinematographer Lachlan Milne’s lens drinks in the dense hill country of the North Island as seasons change and Hec ‘n Ricky’s predicament grows progressively more dire (in a coming-of-age, mostly no-one gets hurt PG fashion, of course).

Hunt for the Wilderpeople, then, is perhaps best characterised as Benji The Hunted by way of Stand by Me with a heavy dose of Thelma and Louise (with Waititi ably dialing-up the jittery Michael Bay-meets-Edgar Wright directorial affectations). It’s a winning exercise in wry humour, wilderness adventure and warmly understated life lessons.


Yeah, I’ll admit it — Hunt For The Wilderpeople charmed your cultural attaché into complete submission. That impenetrable tar mass may have melted just a tad.

Just don’t tell anyone, okay?

* Obligatory acknowledgment of his Waititi’s stewardship of Thor: Ragnarok goes here.

- Garth Jones

Originally published at