By Richard von Busack
A joke that you can tell anyone—that’s rare. So is a movie that can be recommended with pleasure to anyone, of any age. In Hunt for the Wilderpeople by Taika Waititi, lush landscapes of the rainforest of New Zealand counter a sense of humor so toast-dry that it makes the British Ealing comedies of the 1950s seem overripe.
Young Ricky (Julian Dennison) is brought to a remote, shabby farm—a foster kid dropped off by our villainess, Paula (Rachel House) a massive social worker who describes this foster child as “a bad egg.” (To use that Simpsons’ joke, Ricky isn’t exactly “a Dennis-level menace.”) Bella (Rima Te Wiata), the lady of the house, examines plump Ricky: “You hungry? Silly question. Look at ya.” As for her husband Hec (Sam Neill), he barely tolerates the boy. Bella isn’t mean, just blunt—she later shows her goodhearted side, handling the kid’s desire to run away with the tact and gentleness of a born mother.
When we lose Bella—an event Waititi handles with taste and distance—the child welfare people want the boy back in custody. Hec is determined not to let the kid be taken back into an institution. He and the boy go off into the woods. The police sound the Kiwi equivalent of an Amber Alert.
And Paula sees herself as the force of justice: “No child left behind,” she intones, as if she were reciting the Mounties’ motto, “We always get our man.” When she gets within shouting distance of her quarry, she warns him: “You’re playing with a bag of snakes, boy. A big bag, with a bunch of holes in it.” Waititi (who directed the terrific vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows) has a real skill for matching the morbid with the merry.
Neill is touching and funny—Oscar-worthy, as they say. He shows his gift as an actor; he’s a man of few words, unflappable as a true Western hero, with an eye firmly on the horizon.
‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ opens Friday, July 8 at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center; rafaelfilm.cafilm.org.