Hard times often lead us to the conclusion that we would be better off left alone, that absolute freedom is only attainable through radical loneliness — and that we would be better off if only we were able to break free. Isolation is such a great temptation at the face of abiding adversity, of relentless rejection. And relentless rejection tastes so much sourer when it comes from people we didn’t even like in the first place.
Foster child Ricky Baker (a delightful Julian Dennison, “Paper Planes”) has been subject of such rejection pretty much since he first opened his eyes to the world. A “dangerous” kid, as described by his outlandishly vicious social worker Paula (a guignolesque Rachel House, “White Lies”), Ricky has learned to keep it all to himself, to suck it all till all dwells within the domains of his flabby flesh, his full-fleshed humanity — an overweight island constantly battling between sinking and floating back again. A game of torture he has learned to bear all by himself.
After landing in what might be his last chance at a foster home with the all-too-cheerful (almost psychotically so, at least from the first impression) Bella (warm and cozy Rima Te Wiata, “Housebound”), who is urged to be called aunt, Ricky finds himself out at the bush, in the middle of nowhere, with the most uncool people ever in the world. And he has yet to meet his “Uncle Hec” (a masterfully workmanlike Sam Neill, “A Long Way Down”), boar hunter and haunting bore who wants no one else’s company but Aunt Bella’s. But neither Hec nor Zag, the family dog, are enough for Bella’s big, beautiful heart. A loving soul in the solitude business, Bella gets herself into the task of rescuing lonely, drifting spirits and loving them for who they are. This she does with Ricky, who, despite not being able to get along with Hector, steadily opens up his heart to his Auntie and, later, to his dog, Tupac, for whom he will look after as though it were an extension of himself.
Things go astray though as tragedy unexpectedly shows at this household and both Hector and Ricky are forced to lose themselves inside the bush (New Zealander for forest or New Zealander forest, whatever comes first) and are hence forced to put each other’s lives on one another’s backs. And all hell breaks loose as these two oddballs get into deeper and deeper into the bush, which unleash a manhunt led (at least that’s what she thinks) by Paula on the basis that a mentally unstable (maybe even a pervert) man is looking after (maybe even kidnapped) a very troubled boy.
Ricky is, no doubt, a misfit. He is one, nonetheless, in a land of misfits, an outcast sitting at the very edge of the outskirts, an outlaw at the margins of the chart of rights of any respectable constitution. He has crashed the couch of a “family” of freaks at the periphery of the fringes that is the bush, a place forgotten by time . . . and words. A place at the corner side of memory and loss, the verge at the palace’s mews.
Yet, for quite some time as we see these two straying into the wild beyond the point of no return, it is noticeable that Ricky and Hec are opposite derelicts. One is all talking, quick-witted, a bit of a brat yet charming and, all in all, quite nice, with his haikus done and told like pocket-slam-poetry. And then we have the other, the man of few, very few words, to the point of illiteracy (a source of shame all the same), all hands and fists and sweat, the ultimate survivor, drawing, carving in a notebook whatever he has lost and misses, like scars on a piece of paper.
It is precisely, however, this opposition that so seminally contributes to make Hunt for the Wilderpeople (in case you were wondering about the title) an enduring experience, one that goes way beyond the little less than an hour and a half that you spend at the movie theater. This opposition also helps director Taika Waititi (“What We Do in the Shadows”) display his impeccable sense of place. With thick brushes and a determined camera, Waititi is able to broach the bush as a paradoxical paradise, or paradisiacal paradox (whatever falls first): The bush as a land offering an escape route to those who have nowhere to go, and, even worse, no place to stay. Such paradox delineates a common point between Ricky and Hec wherein they both find themselves conceiving of family as a messy endeavor, constantly confronted by chance and tragedy and ongoing loss, with dead friends and deadly foes.
In this way, Waititi pays his respects to one of the biggest legends in New Zealand’s literature, Barry Crump, getting inside his world of blokes blocking off their hard luck. Yet the filmmaker is also able to traverse the writer’s manly style as he proves that switching from Ricky’s to Hector’s voice, as though constantly negotiating their points of view, is definitely a deft choice. There’s a point in which these two voices converge, which stresses their bond down in our guts — and their bond lives on beyond the movie’s last credit.
It is at the convergence of these two voices that Waititi introduces a deep sense of loss that grows throughout the movie and traverses the characters as they cross the bush, a sense that slowly becomes an unbreakable bond. And all these, should we not forget, occurs within the context of a delicious comedy (with a hilarious cameo by Waititi himself as a priest trying to distinguish between heaven and hell for his bedazzled and scarce congregation).
Not a cheeky, cheesy, so much easy Hollywood trope of demon-confrontation-exorcising-closure moment in which characters suddenly get to the realization that they were, are, will be wrong (a trope that even at its height can give us wonderful films as “Moonrise Kingdom”) is seen, not even fleetingly, in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. What we see are characters who subtly change and open themselves, demons that recede while they refuse to go away — just like happens in life.
And this speaks volumes of Waititi’s poetical maturity — a sense of which we got in his excellent “Boy,” if still in its raw form. The director’s maturity is thereby distilled into his cast (mainly his two leading men) and, particularly, in Ricky’s hilarious-but-always insightful haiku-making; his haikus emanate as abridged variations of his own confusion in a world too strange to inhabit yet too fascinating to leave behind. He makes them in situ, on the fly, on the run, which gives him an early point of connection with Bella, who creates songs likewise (and delivers one of the catchiest birthday songs ever). Both produce pieces that are simple, spontaneous, sometimes clumsy yet always memorable, honest and funny, just like Waititi’s filmmaking.
“You were rejected and now you are accepted by me and Hector,” sings an out of tune Bella, squeezing a forced hendecasyllable on a ¾ beat bar. Suddenly, as Ricky chants the chorus with his Aunt we realize that, musical quality notwithstanding, this is absolutely true, and its significance rings inside us. And how much more does this ring when it comes from Hector, a Pakeha (European settler) who excels at “things you don’t need to think too hard or talk” at all, the body-man bonding with the Maori boy of words, both exchanging skills and then becoming something more than themselves. Then this coming-of-age film (which is what Crump’s book is) becomes a coming-of-self work, a coming-off-shell movie that opens with a chapter describing a bad egg. Yet we don’t know which of them is the egg the caption refers to. What we get the privilege to see though is these two eggs brooding healthy selves that hatch right in front of our very eyes — hatching as they accept one another, like lands that find each other at the other side of the river.
Thus closure comes in a different way for Waititi. For him, there is always a new element entering at the end of the circle. Very much in the same way in which he orchestrates his enthralling 360° pannings, very much in the same way in which the degree symbol appears as though the zero was thinking of itself, Ricky is squared and Hector circled — and that is more than enough to seal their kinship.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople looks at a family on the run, on the fly, thus bonded and made. What the film shows is that family dwells at the hither side of freedom, that freedom is only so when there’s someone else to share it with, that home lives there where acceptance is to be found, where we are meant to be recognized — and it is this recognition that, in Ricky’s/Hector’s words, makes for a most majestical movie.