Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Taika Waititi
Release Year:
Length (mins):
New Zealand
Taika Waititi, Barry Crump (based on the book "Wild Pork and Watercress")
Sam Neill, Julian Dennison
Numerous including Winner Audience Award at Edinburgh International Film Festival 2016
Screening Date:
  • 14 May 2019
  • Categories:
    Adventure, Comedy, Drama

    Light-hearted adventure about a rebellious kid and his foster uncle who go missing in the New Zealand bush. Clueless authorities instigate a national manhunt. Strong comedy chemistry between Sam Neill and newcomer Julian Dennison.

    Film Notes

    Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, Wilderpeople will hope to capitalise on the success of Waititi’s last feature, the vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows. The film stars Sam Neill, which will help lend a little marquee sizzle, but the biggest attraction may very well be Waititi, whose track record of low-key comedies (including 2007’s Eagle Vs Shark) has earned him a loyal cult following. Expect good reviews and nice buzz coming out of Park City.

    Newcomer Julian Dennison plays Ricky, a 13-year-old who has been bouncing around foster homes his whole life until he’s taken in by the kindly Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her grumpy husband Hec (Neill). Ricky thinks he’s finally found a stable family environment, but after Bella dies suddenly, he isn’t sure if he wants to live with Hec, running away to the surrounding New Zealand bush before Hec tracks him down. Unfortunately, because Ricky burned down part of Hec’s property before he left — and since both men are deep in the bush and unreachable — authorities mobilise a manhunt to track them down, suspecting that perhaps Hec has kidnapped the boy.

    Waititi, who will soon be making the transition from independent comedies to blockbuster filmmaking when he takes the reins of the next Thor movie, sharpens his trademark deadpan style to a fine point with Wilderpeople, populating the story with funny characters who get laughs from underplaying their punch lines.

    As the sarcastic, vulnerable Ricky, Dennison is a marvel of blasé reactions, talking about his love of the so-called thug life with such laidback ease that just about everything that comes from his inexpressive mouth is hysterical. But the young man also nicely walks the line between pathos and sentimentality, showing that Ricky just wants to feel needed by someone, slowly building a connection with Hec as they both try to evade the police.

    Neill could have portrayed Hec as just one-note cantankerous, but there’s a kindliness in his eyes that suggests that he, too, has a fear of being abandoned. Like Ricky, Hec has always felt like an outsider, and we soon see how Bella’s death has affected both men in much the same way. The veteran actor brings an effortless command to the role, and Hec’s emerging fondness for the teenager is as predictable as it is enjoyable to behold.

    Indeed, Wilderpeople doesn’t spend a lot of time playing up the personality clashes between Hec and Ricky, instead letting them settle into a contentious but good-natured ribbing of one another. The reasons for the urgency behind the manhunt would involve ruining some choice jokes, but let it be said that Waititi believably transitions from comedy to a more suspenseful tone as the net draws tighter around our heroes.

    Although the film largely focuses on laughs, Waititi deftly weaves in an emotional undercurrent so that there’s a sense of real stakes. For both men, being caught has genuine consequences — Hec has been to prison before, and Ricky fears he’ll continue to be shuffled through disinterested foster families — and we feel their anxiety. Remarkably, though, at the same time that Wilderpeople becomes a moving father-and-son story, we’re laughing at the filmmaker’s spot-on references to everything from The Lord Of The Rings to McCabe & Mrs. Miller. This is a lovely small film that does nothing momentous but exudes such a happy glow.

    TIM GRIERSON, Screen Daily, 23 JANUARY 2016

    Taika Waititi's adaptation of Barry Crump's 'Wild Pork and Watercress' stars Sam Neill and Julian Dennison.

    A hard-to-handle foster kid from the big city and a grouchy bushman in his sixties are forced to forge an unlikely alliance to survive in the New Zealand wilderness in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a deliciously good time at the movies. An adaptation of Wild Pork and Watercress from the late and legendary New Zealand outdoorsman and novelist Barry Crumb, this familiar but perfectly balanced blend of drama and comedy, action and heart was directed by actor-director Taika Waititiknown for his work on projects such as the vampire mockumentary What We Do In the Shadows and also the director of the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok.

    Based on the evidence here, that hire was a brilliant move on Marvel’s part, as Waititi is fully in command of Wilderpeople, his biggest and most ambitious film to date. With Kiwi legend Sam Neill and impressive local up-and-comer Julian Dennison (Shopping, Paper Planes) headlining the proceedings, this should again do solid business at home — where Waititi’s 2010 feature Boyremains the highest-grossing local film of all time — while also exciting distributors further afield.

    The film kicks off with the delivery of rotund and taciturn 13-year-old Ricky Baker (Dennison) at a dilapidated cottage in the middle of the New Zealand bush. As explained by a barking employee of Child Welfare, Paula (Rachel House), Ricky, who has changed homes frequently, has a history of getting into trouble. However, his new adoptive mother, Bella (Rima Te Wiata), isn’t concerned in the slightest, not even after he’s run away during his first night in his new home, telling him to come back in for breakfast before continuing his escape.

    Waititi is most famous internationally for his comedic work — which besides Shadows also includes work on Flight of the Concords ­— and his nimble adaptation here combines solid writing with an entire bag of filmmaking tricks that includes visual gags, unexpected cuts and quick montage sequences to score laughs from the get-go. He also cleverly exploits who these people are to get the audience in stitches.

    In all films except for childish comedies, it would considered bad taste to make jokes about the fact Ricky’s overweight, for example. Here, they are placed in the mouth of the no-nonsense yet big-hearted countrywoman Bella, and it’s hard not to crack up and be touched at the same time, since they come across as terms of endearment from someone with a tough-as-nails, tell-it-like-it-is worldview. (Te Wiata’s carefully calibrated performance has a lot to do with finding the right tone as well.) Similarly, Ricky’s incongruous interest in haikus to express his feelings, which he seems to have picked up from one of the no-doubt countless shrinks he’s been forced to see in his recent past, is used simultaneously as a source of humor and character information, with a few of them neatly (if also somewhat predictably) woven into the film’s final stretch.

    The bulk of the story takes place after Bella’s suddenly exits the picture and Ricky is forced to escape into the bush with Bella’s partner, the scruffy curmudgeon Hector or Hec (Neill). As in all mismatched buddy stories, the sixtysomething doesn’t like his 13-year-old new charge very much, though the kid insists they escape into the bush together, since otherwise he’ll be forced to go to juvie.  

    Indeed, the two are polar opposites in more ways than one: Apart from the differences in age and experience, Ricky is a city slicker while Hec is a real outdoors expert, as the costumes (by Kristin Seth) also keep reminding us, with the boy’s new and colorful hoodie, baseball jacket and cap standing in stark contrast to Hec’s much more practical, camouflage-colored and lived-in gear. Hec’s experience in this field will allow them to survive for months in the country’s virginal forests, while they hide from the increasingly large man- and childhunt led by Paula, the local police and, eventually, the military. Even when Hector fractures his foot and can’t walk properly for several weeks, they manage to survive because he instructs Ricky in the ways of the bush. This leads to quite a few comic setpieces as the boy, who’s appalled at the idea of having to survive without toilet paper, tries to get the hang of how to live in the forest.   

    The Hunt for the Wilderpeople — the title comes from Ricky likening the duo to wildebeests, known for their long treks — is divided into novelistic chapters with titles such as “The Bad Egg,” or “Broken Foot Camp”. They not only help recall the film’s source material but also help to further infuse their journey with something epic, as it suggests many other chapters were left out for this condensed version of events. Along the way, Waititi alternates moments of action, including some ferocious wild pig action (courtesy of The Lord of the Rings’ FX company Weta); countless moments of humor (a highlight is their stay with the off-the-grid-living Psycho Sam, played by Rhys Darby) and also touching moments of drama, including a nighttime conversation in a bunk bed that’s played just right, staying miles away from syrupy sentiment even as the two men allow themselves to shed some light on their feelings.  

    A chapter called “War” was no-doubt something Marvel looked at before handing Waititi the reins of their Thor franchise, and he handles the large-scale action sequences here with aplomb, always respecting spatial coherence while making sure the proceedings also contain a certain wow-factor. But finally, what makes Wilderpeople memorable is how attached audiences become to the characters, and as played by  Dennison and Neill, they are two fully realized, full of flaws but nonetheless oh-so loveable human beings.  

     Boyd van Hoeij, The Hollywood Reporter, 23/1/2016

    What you thought about Hunt for the Wilderpeople

    Film Responses

    Excellent Good Average Poor Very Poor
    45 (73%) 17 (27%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%)
    Total Number of Responses: 62
    Film Score (0-5): 4.73

    Collated Response Comments

    94 members were in attendance for the AGM and 115 for the screening. A hit rate of 54% and a score of 4.73 made it the MOST POPULAR FILM of the 2018/19 Season.


    The following comment was made many times and summed up the feeing for the season. All members of the committee please take a bow.

    “A fitting choice to end the season. Humorous and with strong performances from the leading actors a very enjoyable evenings viewing. Would like to take this opportunity to thank all those involved with GFS for another highly entertaining and thought provoking season - all your hard work on our behalf is much appreciated”.

    “A real feel good, crowd pleaser to finish the season. A familiar plot arc; young rebel (Dennison last seen by me in 'Deadpool 2' essentially reprising this role but to rather more alarming effect) and irascible old man (the ever reliable and likeable Neill) are redeemed by a shared experience and learn from each other. Nevertheless Waititi skips deftly around all the potential clichés to deliver a warm and beautifully balanced film thronging with fully realised characters despite often limited screen time (Kahu's dad and Psycho Sam in particular). It has the same affectionate but unsentimental approach to its characters and respect for the healing power of the landscape as 'Local hero' and 'Whisky Galore'. With a similarly sharp, quirky humour we get a happy ending without it ever feeling mawkish or unearned. Excellent”.

    “Brilliant. Best film of the season. Scenery and photography brilliant. Tremendous acting from the young lad”. “I loved it – so human. Wonderful puns etc...” “Really enjoyed this film”. “Brilliant! What a great film. That was the best this season. Loved the humour. “It’s like Lord of the Rings”!!! Very moving too. A very original story.”

    “Well Waititi had fun! Great film, a reel mix! Predictable in places, but great characterisation, acting and sense of place”. “Enjoyed the relationship between the boy and Hector. Great NZ scenery and Leonard Cohen.” “Terrific”. “A wonderful end to the season. Outstanding performances from the two lead actors and some humorous tributes to other films”. “Lovely end to the season. Best Sam Neil for a long time. Even a good soundtrack”. “What a great film to end on – feel-good factor. Great acting. Fab music”.

    “Nice upbeat film to end the season on! “ “Best film of the season. Great end. Thanks!” “Loved it. Excellent end to the season!” “I loved the wit and the humanity. Great photography and music too”. “Enjoyable and humorous and great South Island. What a wacky, wonderful film – loved it. And a great way to end a very successful season-well done”.

    “Bitter sweet – vey nuanced”. “Good end of season. Thank you FSOC team!” “Fabulous last film. Really entertaining”. “It had all the things I love in a movie”. “Great end to the season. Main characters excellently underplayed. Scenery impressive. Great car chase reminiscent of “Thelma and Louise”. “An eye opener!” “Majestic”. “Engaging, well-paced and heart-warming”. “What an amazing story of an unlikely relationship”.

    “Nice filming & intelligent use of music (unlike current BBC programmes). Funny and charming – most enjoyable”. “Unusual but easy watching and listening”. “Good of its type. Great music and scenery. A cracking season = grateful thanks to all on the committee”. “An amusing and warm-hearted film – good one to end on”. “A hugely enjoyable and quality film”. “Great fun and Leonard Cohen”. “Excellent narrative power, shining with wit and wish fulfilment”.


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