Hunt for the Wilderpeople
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The focus of this film from New Zealand, which is set in the bush of that country, is Ricky, a pudgy orphaned teenager who names his dog Tupac and uses haiku as a form of self-expression. Described as a kid who never wanted to be good, Ricky is at ease with his new foster family. He runs away every night, only to make his way back every morning for a pancake breakfast. When he is told by child protective services that he must leave his foster uncle after his foster aunt’s untimely death to go live in a supposedly superior place with a new parental figure, he decides to take matters into his own hands.

Broken into book-like chapters, Hunt for the Wilderpeople depicts, often with humor, what it’s like having government officials decide what’s best for parentless children. Director and screenwriter Taika Waititi brings his outstanding vision to life with the help of a talented ensemble cast. Waititi, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his short film Two Cars, One Night and co-wrote the highly anticipated Disney film Moana, has found great success with Hunt for the Wilderpeople in New Zealand. The film broke the record for the highest-grossing opening weekend in the country’s history.

Julian Dennison conveys authenticity as young Ricky while veteran screen actor Sam Neill portrays Ricky’s grouch of a foster uncle, Hec. The two escape into the woods only to have all of New Zealand, under the delusion that Hec is a child molester who has kidnapped Ricky, on pins and needles awaiting their discovery. Aware of this false accusation concocted by the officials in charge of Ricky’s case, the two begin to bond as they commence their lives as runaways together.

The film shows the consequences of governments focusing on children as part of one homogenous group, rather than as unique individuals. In the eyes of Ricky, who never had a place to call home before ending up on the farm with Hec, adventure is a better option than returning to a world that sees him as nothing more than an orphaned criminal in the making. He finds being on the run, hunting for food, and lighting a campfire for warmth preferable to surrendering himself and leaving Hec behind.

Waititi’s script brings genuine emotion to ridiculous circumstances, striking just the rights notes at just the right moments. His film is never strange just for the sake of being strange. At its core is a lonesome child who sees the world as a place that rejected him until he found a cranky old man who gave him a shotgun and allowed him to drive a car during a police chase. “When they ask who did this,” Ricky tells a group of men lingering in the woods, “tell them it was the wilderpeople!”