Friday, May 06, 2016

Hunt for the Wilderpeople: film review

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 90 plus films later, here is the review for April 2016.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a wonderful tickle of the New Zealand funny bone. The people I sat beside wiped tears from their eyes, then as the credits rolled stood to applaud the script writing skills of director Taika Waititi and the acting of teenager Ricky Barker.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a road trip gone bush. Troubled teenager Ricky Barker (Julian Dennison) needs a home. At the end of a rural gravel road, Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her silent partner, Hector (Sam Neill) are Julian’s last chance before juvenile detention. When tragedy strikes, Ricky goes bush. Tracked by Hector, their actions spark a national manhunt. At this point, with the end inevitable, interest is maintained by the insertion of the bizarre (extinct birds and selfie seekers) and creative rifting on pop-culture (Up, Goodbye Pork Pie and 1980’s Toyota advertisements).

New Zealand cinema has been typecast as dark and brooding (interestingly by Sam Neill himself), evident in the bleak cinematographic palate of a Vigil or the subject matter of Quiet Earth or River Queen. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a welcome reminder that rich veins of humour have always run through New Zealand cinema, from Goodbye Pork Pie and Came a Hot Friday to Boy (also directed by Taika Waititi).

What we are finding funny is worth pondering. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is an adaptation of Barry Crump’s Wild Pork and Watercress. At the core of Crump’s books are men alone, a reference to the name of John Mulgan’s 1939 novel. In the literature of Crump and Mulgan, men are drift from conflict and commitment rather than embracing the emotional work required of long term relationships. Males alone are the core of Hunt for the Wilderpeople. The humour that surrounds Julian’s use of haiku is not only funny, but a reminder of emotional deprivation.

The sadness at the core of these constructions of being male is magnified by the shift in time. Wild Pork and Watercress, written by Crump thirty years ago, is contemporized in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. John Campbell reports for national news, while cell phone technology is used to track Julian and Hector. In New Zealand today, there are far too many Julian’s and the rate of child neglect remains unacceptably high. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a film well worth seeing, even as the lighthearted laughter involves themes that should weigh on our heart instead of tickle our funny bone.

Religion has a presence in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Director Waititi plays a church minister, his sermon a head scratching piece of nonsense. Shifting from funeral scene to plot development, Ricky and Hector’s act of going bush becomes a form of redemption. Isolation deepens the relationship between Ricky and Hector. The bush can bond. The result is a secularized affirmation of Christian understandings of the grace possible in creation and through relationship.

Go to Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Laugh until you cry. Return home. Commit to acting in ways that turn the tears of New Zealand children into laughter.

Posted by steve at 07:14 AM

1 Comment

  1. Hi Steve,

    I didn’t pick up on the man alone theme so thanks for that thought.

    Hunt for the Wilderpeople reminded me of the interview Tupua Urlich did on Nine til Noon with Kathryn Ryan. Another redemptive story of someone who has survived childcare in state care and the fractured sense of security a child can piece together when they are moved to new carers every 18 months.

    I love film for it’s ability to get into the public imagination in a way a policy recommendation never could. I’m thinking also of The Bone People and it’s critique of a top down approach to children in violent and dangerous situations.

    Hubby and I are now working out ways we can act to change tears into laughter…

    Comment by Abigail Spence — May 9, 2016 @ 10:19 am

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