It’s easy to be sarcastic, mean, cynical, or cruel. It’s easy to make a movie that trades on a grim assessment of life and its many travails, offering the audience little more than a thin assertion that life really is as tough as everybody already knows it is. But it is far harder to be earnest, to be truthful, and to see that there is a sweetness to things—a heartfelt bond between people that can be found when the conditions are right and when we take the opportunity to put ourselves at risk and take a chance on somebody who might just take a chance on us, in return. Such is the story of Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a touching, warm and funny adventure-comedy from New Zealand director Taiki Waititi that swiftly earned more than a few well-deserved platitudes as the best film of 2016.
The story takes place out in the boondocks of New Zealand, where child services drops off a 13-year-old Maori juvenile delinquent named Ricky Baker at a remote farm run by a mildly cringey do-gooder named Bella Faulkner and her gruff husband Hec, an archetypical Southern Man of New Zealand. Ricky is a walking pastiche of hip-hop, inner city bluster, clearly a kid who’s developed as thick a shell as he could to survive bouncing around from foster home to foster home. Somewhere along the way, he’s learned that his best defense mechanism is to make it impossible for any home to hang to him for long. But Bella’s far sharper and wiser than Ricky thinks, and she has an answer for his every antic. Before long, it seems like everything’s going to work out until tragedy strikes the farm and through a series of fateful turns, both Ricky and Hec find themselves deep in the wilderness as the subject of a nationwide manhunt. With neither one willing to let the law decide what to do with them, they become unexpected partners as they survive in the bush. Ricky is not cut out for roughing it. Hec is not cut out for spending time with other human beings. Together, they’ll teach each other a thing or two about the survival skills they both need to develop if they’re gonna make it. Because they both know that on their own, no matter where in New Zealand they are, they’re both goners.
This is the kind of story that the Hallmark Channel has probably shown at least 10,000 times already—tough kid gets a tough mentor and together they wear each other down and eventually open up about themselves and whatever issues they’re nursing. And while that’s basically the story in Hunt for the Wilderpeople in the broadest strokes possible, that’s not the movie’s selling point. Its in its extremely deft execution, from the hilarious chemistry between Ricky and Hec, to the poignant nature of their journey of survival and discovery, to their weary admission that sometimes when we carry around pain long enough, we get so used to it that we become afraid to let it go. Oh, and that sometimes, the only answer is to go full gangsta.
Lest one think this is some kind of maudlin field trip through the parts of New Zealand that don’t look like Middle Earth, fear not. This movie is a master class in a sort of dry, offbeat humor that simply doesn’t exist in many films. Ricky and Hec make a terrific odd couple thanks to their expert portrayals as well as their genuinely earned, character-driven moments, rather than the kinds of easy gags a fish-out-of-water story might otherwise provide. More importantly, there is an absurdity to Ricky and Hec’s situation, and they seem to know it the further into trouble they get. As they head ever deeper into the wilderness, the civilized world they are trying to leave behind feels increasingly idiotic and inescapable. Ricky and Hec know they can’t last out in the bush forever, and even if they wanted to, is that what they really want? In the third act, we meet Psycho Sam, a guy who has managed to live off the grid undetected for the last 15 years, and we really can’t tell if he lost his marbles living in isolation, or if he went into isolation because he lost his marbles. Either way, he’s the reality check for Ricky and Hec; either one of them know that if they actually succeed in their quest to get lost forever, becoming a mumbling weirdo is the best reward they can expect.
What makes this story so touching, however, is watching Ricky and Hec lean on each other as they navigate their own personal healing processes despite the best efforts of a world that seems dead-set on telling them how to handle their own issues but is completely incapable of doing so competently. The cops want to bring Ricky back into foster care, where he “belongs” without asking why this kid keeps running from it. The public decides Hec is a dangerous criminal without imagining what a guy like him might need from it now that the things he treasures most have been taken from him.
The moment of truth is also the movie’s funniest, when we are treated to the world’s most inept funeral homily that rambles about doors and Jesus and Coke Zero and is the embodiment of the fecklessness of those who assume the authority to show people the way out of darkness without having a clue about what darkness is really like. This is why Bella—and another Maori family Ricky encounters later on in the story—are the tale’s true heroes. They see people who are looking for something and haven’t yet found it, and they’re not about to get in the way. They know these journeys are always self-directed. They offer care, comfort, and support, but that’s it. Sometimes, less really is more.