Hunt for the Wilderpeople is about a kid who goes into the bush of New Zealand with his Foster Uncle to avoid being taken back into custody by an out-of-touch child services agent. On a larger scale it’s about freedom, true freedom. Freedom that comes with responsibility, danger, darkness, and also joy. That sounds a little over the top, but it’s true. It’s also about the people who fall through the cracks and how they can help each other better than the system in place.
Ricky is a street kid, who according the state has a long list of behavioral problems. He has a taste for hip hop fashion and wears high tops and hoodies that zip all the way up over his face. After all the available foster homes in the city don’t work out, the state decides to relocate him to the country with Bella and Hec, who is a dark, quiet man with a drifter past. An unlikely fit into the middle of nowhere, he manages to make himself a home with the help of the cheerful and caring Bella. Bella dies suddenly, and the state threatens to take Ricky back. Ricky decides, rather than go back and face juvenile detention, to run away to the Bush. He goes out and gets lost. Hec finds him, but by the time that happens it’s already assumed that Hec has kidnapped Ricky and a manhunt begins. Many wrong turns and decisions later they end up on the run for four months.
The thing I really loved about this movie is that it makes you want to cry just as often as it makes you want to laugh and that’s quite often. It’s rare to see a comedy this goofy that’s also this sad and depressing. Within the first 15 minutes there’s a tragedy and it seems to keep being punctuated by moments like that. Despite the deeply genuine sadness, the humor is still able to pick you up, with its cracks at dysfunctional bureaucratic systems and absurdity.
One of my immediate thoughts at the start of Hunt for the Wilderpeople was how it felt a lot like a Wes Anderson film. For instance, the movie is broken into chapters. There’s also a similar awkward, deadpan humor. It’s easy to make an immediate comparison to Moonrise Kingdom, with the idea of escaping into the wilderness from a society that doesn’t understand and doesn’t want to. Unlike in Moonrise Kingdom, where these kids are on their own where it doesn’t seem like their lives are in that much danger, the wilderness here is very dangerous and alive. They’re the subject of an actual manhunt. People are injured. No one in Moonrise Kingdom is seriously threatened with jail time. Wilderpeople finds a way of subverting the twee humor, taking the irony out and adding a bite of reality.
It’s also a very pretty movie. The farm house is comfortably rustic and the greenery of the bush is lush and saturated. There’s so many beautiful, helicopter shots of New Zealand scenery, much like Lord of the Rings-so much so that that there’s a joke worked into the movie about it.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is touching and funny. It has its absurd moments, but deep down it has a lot of really radical things to say. The humor manages not to cloud them but instead to add a childlike sense of coping and making sense of the world.