Laugh-out-loud funny one minute, achingly sad the next, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” takes the audience on a rollicking yet poignant journey through the New Zealand backcountry in the company of a pair of engagingly eccentric characters.
One is a pudgy, troubled city kid named Ricky (Julian Dennison) who’s been nothing but trouble for most of his 13 years on the planet. Arson, tagging, spitting are just a few of the transgressions that have had him bouncing from foster home to foster home until he fetches up at a ramshackle farm deep in the mountains that a no-nonsense child-protective services lady (Rachel House) assures him is the last stop before juvenile hall.
The other main character is a grouchy old graybeard named Hec (Sam Neill), husband of the down-to-earth mistress of the place, Bella (Rima Te Wiata), who encourages the lad to call her Aunty.
From her, the kid finds acceptance and love, two things Ricky’s never known in his short life. He comes out of his shell.
But then all too quickly she exits the story, and Ricky and Hec are thrown uncomfortably together, and then, through a misadventure — let’s call it arson — the two of them wind up on the run through the lush woods with a nationwide manhunt organized to track them down. Seems the authorities think Hec has kidnapped the kid.
New Zealand writer-director Taika Waititi seamlessly switches up emotional beats throughout the picture, offering a heart-rending scene of a man wailing with grief that is beyond words to express and later serving up a comic passage featuring a cheery, garrulous lunatic capering through the woods disguised as a bush.
Waititi’s writing is strong, and the picture’s characters are wonderfully distinctive. Dennison is a real find, navigating Ricky’s complex emotional depths with seemingly effortless ease.
Neill gives an understated portrayal of a capable but damaged woodsman. And the female characters are extraordinarily well-realized, with Te Wiata stealing every scene she’s in, playing a woman with a mischievous sense of humor and a kind heart.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
☆☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Julian Dennison, Sam Neill, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House.
Director: Taika Waititi.
Running time: 1:41.
Rated: PG-13, for thematic elements including violent content, and for some language.