Shuffled from one foster home to another thanks to his long history of “kicking things, breaking things, burning things” and basically engaging in all manner of destructive behavior, Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) has landed on the doorstep of soft-hearted Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her cantankerous bushman husband, Hec (Sam Neill). While the latter regards the overweight 13-year-old (who fancies himself a hardcore rapper) with a mixture of suspicion and contempt, Bella is completely unfazed by the boy’s gruff exterior, admonishing him to make sure he returns before breakfast if he decides to run away in the middle of the night.
When a sudden tragedy threatens to yank Ricky away from his new family and back into New Zealand’s foster care system – or worse, to “juvie” – he gathers up his recently adopted poppy (which he names Tupac, of course) and flees into the wilderness, where his nonexistent survival skills will surely be the death of him. Luckily, Hec manages to track him down, but their journey home is delayed significantly when the old man fractures his ankle. By the time they stumble back into the world several weeks later, they find that Ricky’s stone-faced case worker Paula (Rachel House) has misconstrued the events of the boy’s disappearance: Hec has been charged with kidnapping and the duo have become the subject of a colossal manhunt.
After a chance encounter with a trio of hunters further confuses the situation – Ricky’s complaints about being forced to “do stuff” for the old man are taken completely out of context – the unlikely traveling partners retreat back into the bush, dragging the audience along for the ride through one hilarious misadventure after another while Paula doggedly pursues them across the country.
Adapted from the novel Wild Pork and Watercress by famed New Zealand author Barry Crump and peppered with humorous exchanges of dialogue that illustrate the huge cultural divide between Neill’s survival-savvy grouch and Dennison’s enthusiastic orphan, Hunt for the Wilderpeople’s greatest strength lies in director Taika Waititi’s ability to mine comedy gold from nearly every moment. Character interactions range from amusing, such as Ricky’s encounter with a mysterious Maori girl and her selfie-obsessed boyfriend, to wildly absurd, as Ricky and Paula stand on either side of a ravine and argue about which characters from the Terminator franchise they represent. The reality these characters inhabit may resemble our own, but it’s obvious some elements have been heightened for comic effect, and this pays off with some huge laughs.
Waititi, who also helmed the well-received vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, manages to balance the onslaught of humor with just the right amount of emotional evolution for both of his protagonists. Ricky and Hec may have their flaws, but in the end those imperfections are precisely what bring them together – they may not quite understand each other, but their ability to function as a family doesn’t necessarily require that they do. It’s a poignant message that most audience members should relate to, provided they can stop laughing long enough to think about it.