Young runaway Ricky (Julian Dennison) is put with a foster family in the middle of the New Zealand countryside. Finding himself happy for the first time, events conspire to move him back into state care in the city and he instead decides to go on the run with the gruff Uncle Hec (Sam Neill), setting off a major manhunt that threatens to end in tragedy.
When young orphan Ricky is dropped off at the remote home of new foster parents Auntie Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Uncle Hec, he’s a complete fish out of water and, according to child-services liason Paula (Rachel House), a real bad egg. “No returns. Only joking”, she quips, hinting at the hard underbelly both she and this film have. Ricky quickly becomes accustomed to the slower way of country living, and the warmth and love shown to him by Bella, if not Hec. So when this unexpected rural idyll looks like being torn from him, he promptly does a bunk into the bush, tracked then accompanied by the grumpy Hec and together they both find peace, redemption and the true meaning of family.
This all sounds like some heartwarming Disney-style film, right? And with a fat kid and a grumpy, white-haired old man as leads, you could be forgiven for thinking this is a quasi, live-action version of Up with an Antipodean twist. But that’s not half of it. True, Up is a touchstone, but this is a quirky, funny, moving tale with steel at its core and lashings of that particular style of New Zealand humour.
It’s also given Sam Neill his best role in an age, a rare character piece that allows him to draw on what writer/director Taika Waititi has called his “untapped reserve of grumpiness”. In his journey from gruff, child hating widow to happy father figure, he could also be an older New Zealand relative of his Alan Grant from Jurassic Park.
As Ricky, Julian Dennison is a real find, his wonderfully expressive eyes and subtle mannerisms perfectly capturing the character. He could have been just plain annoying or, God forbid, saccharine sweet; either would have sunk the film, as would a two-dimensional performance, but Dennison finds the heart and pathos needed. It’s a remarkable turn from a 13-year-old, an amazing one considering this is only his third role.
With this story and a 12a rating, you’d also be forgiven for thinking this is a family feature but be warned – there’s a real, honest dark streak running throughout, particularly in the almost closing moments, some some brief bloodshed and plenty of cursing. Take a couple of six-year-olds along and they’ll emerge with an all-new vocabulary.
Few films deserve or warrant repeat viewing but blink and you’ll miss throwaway comments and moments that make Hunt for the Wilderpeople shine, including Ricky heating a hot water bottle over an open fire, and almost every scene with Uncle Hec. When told that one in nine New Zealanders had seen the film, Sam Neill’s response was, “What’s wrong with the other eight?”, and it’s hard not to disagree with him. So many films strive for the offbeat, the crude-without-being-offensive approach and fail miserably but here it comes across as nothing other than natural. And it really had to be; shooting in an incredibly quick four weeks, there was little time for re-takes.
Worldwide releases for New Zealand films are rare, and this will only be at your local multiplex (if you’re lucky) for a very short time, despite the plethora of awards and critical adorations it’s garnered (and an almost perfect 98% ‘fresh’ rating at Rotten Tomatoes). Ricky and Uncle Hec deserve your time.