This is a delightfully unambitious film that amasses wisdom about family life as it tells its tale in its passage of rights way, packed with compassion, sadness and laughter.
The new Zealand film industry, like the Australian before it, is a wonder: from nothing one year to Peter Jackson and his all-encompassing Rings and Hobbit empire within a short space of time. Generous tax advantages helped it along, the sort of thing governments are elected to arrange to generate jobs and wealth, and as a bi-product, tourism.
I remember the first Kiwi film I saw as a stripling, Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career (1979) -co-starring the same but very young Sam Neill in this film. The ending had the heroine post the manuscript of her first novel to an Edinburgh publisher – Chambers. It was an autobiographical novel, actually published. I marvelled how a film made on the other side of the globe had affectionate mention of my home town while we in Scotland feel embarrassed to include our cities in a filmed drama unless gangsters in Glasgow chopping off each other’s sporrans.
Then Smash Palace, (1981) was released, directed by the young Roger Donaldson, another revelation, this time about small town boredom. Within two years Kiwis proved they could make very good movies that would endure. Once We Were Warriors, (1994) dealt with booze drunk Maori’s and the damage they inflict on families and friends, but also their loss of culture. Later still came poetic drama. I can recall vivid images of the little Maori girl who wants to become chief of her tribe but custom and misogyny won’t allow it, and the beached whale she encounters in Whale Rider, (2002). It still haunts the memory.
First class New Zealand actors emerged from that avalanche of creativity. We got used to seeing the reliable cut-down Connery, Sam Neill, in good film after good film, his widest known success Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. He’s an actor deserving of a lifetime achievement award. And then there’s my talented friend Alan Dale famed for countless editions of Neighbours, everywhere on American television and movies, tantalisingly yet to get the major movie role, the one that exploits his considerable screen authority.
Maori actors don’t fair so well when they knock on Hollywood’s door. The charismatic Temuera Morrison is grossly under-used in American movies, invariably demoted to second lieutenant in a detective drama, an actor clearly capable of better things.
Sam Neill pops up in the latest New Zealand offering, Hunt for the Wilderpeople. (‘Wilder People’ is strangely printed as one word) based on the novel by Barry Crump.
It’s an out-and-out family film but with a lot of surprises, and some good performances. The dividend is the always impressive New Zealand topography, forests and mountains acting as impressive backdrops.
The humour is incidental and often black, rather than jokes crafted for adults so we don’t feel let down forced to take our bread snappers to a kiddy’s film. New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi, (What We Do in the Shadows) expertly strikes a rare balance of dark humor and child-friendly identity themes. It’s a road movie and a coming of age film; so, don’t expect to find ground-breaking genre innovation.
Sam Neill plays Hec, short for Hector, a grizzled, tough-as-nails, rural survivalist with a back story of prison sentence, and likeable weak spot for his loving wife, Bella, (Rima Te Wiata). Ricky, (Julian Dennison) is their overweight foster kid.
Teenager, fat Ricky is shuttled between foster homes, a “real bad egg”. He gets into trouble for minor things, like graffiti, spitting, or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Ricky’s child welfare officer, (Rachel House) has an annoying way of describing Ricky by his negatives, thereby inculcating a sense of failure and inferiority in the lad. But she meets her match when he’s farmed out to Bella as a foster parent. Bella is street smart. “Have your breakfast, and then you can run away.”
On his first day at their country home, Ricky watches in horror as Bella tackles and stabs a wild boar again and again, laughing as if it’s fun. The juxtaposition of human cruelty and good humour is a total shock for this city kid, but he quickly learns to bond with Bella, Hec, and their dog. For one thing, Bella has sussed him out.
Later, when the youngster sees some horses he asks to ride one. “Why ride them? Let them run free and eat grass”, says Bella knowingly. Ricky begins to respect Bella’s honesty and warmth – she hugs everybody – and he learns to admire Hec, her backwoodsman of a husband.
Events overcome the trio – I won’t spoil the plot change, other than to say there’s an hilarious funeral with a sermon about junk food.
To avoid his child officer, Ricky escapes into the wild to keep from being sent back to foster homes. Deep in the forest he plans a life living off the land with his dog Tupac. But he’s no Bear Grylls and soon finds himself way out of his depth when it comes to basic survival skills in the natural world.
He’s tracked and found by Hec (by heck?) who gets injured, delaying their return to civilization long enough that the authorities come looking for them with a set of mixed-up motivations. As the days slip by they become famous, discussed on new bulletins and newspaper front pages. The story grips the nation.
By this point we are well and truly hooked into the story, which is just as well because it slips gently into the relationship between Hec and Ricky, that is, between oil and water, generations apart, Hec in full beard, Ricky not yet seen a shaving razor.
By adventure and misadventure they begin to rely on each other’s strengths to see them through the ordeal. On the journey they meet wacky characters, and learn life’s lessons, the most resonant, how to be better humans.
My groans lie with inappropriate pop music introduced at various moments; a tendency for some actors to fall back on stereotypes, probably a fault in the writing, and that the tone of the story errs on the frivolous side, yet somehow it holds together despite the naivety, and the add-on plain soppy ending.
There’s also any number of problems in a dog as co-starring actor. Dogs keep looking at their handler off camera, and the director can forget to include it in scenes where the audience expect to see it. And so it is with Wilderpeople.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a road movie with no road, a kid’s movie with just one kid, a socio-political film with glimpses of small groups of people, a film about all of us bound up in only two people discarded by society.
There is a fairy tale mythology about it. At its end, as the authorities close in, we care about the fate of our two protagonists. As Hec himself would say “It’s magestical.”
Another win for another New Zealand movie.
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?