justin eagle gauthier | yl voice | dec. 2016
Upon first viewing, I recognized that the dynamics of Taika Waititi's “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” had the sensibility and visual influence of Wes Anderson; however, Anderson's influence is just one of the many facets of the film. It's subtly layered with humor and earnestness and that's a supremely difficult feat for even the most seasoned director.
“Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is a comedic drama adapted by the director from the 1986 book, “Wild Pork and Watercress” by Barry Crump. They tell the story of Ricky, a young Maori urbanite orphan who child protective services delivers to the doorstep of his Aunt Bella and Uncle Hec's home in a sprawling, mountainous landscape. This is Ricky's last chance at placement under the threat of being shuffled into a juvenile detention center.
After the sudden death of his Aunt Bella and an initial brush off by Uncle Hec, Ricky is placed squarely in the sights of the overzealous and hilariously portrayed child protective services officer, Paula. With his incarceration imminent, Ricky escapes into “the bush” only to discover that his urban lifestyle and street knowledge will not help him survive in the wild. Uncle Hec, out of grudging concern, tracks and finds Ricky only to join him and set off on a wild adventure to both escape the clutches of the law and to teach the young boy how to survive in the wild.
The strength of the film is within the relationships, performances, and cinematic style with which Waititi conveys the adapted script to the screen. As a Maori filmmaker and figure in the indigenous film scene, Taika Waititi is emerging as one of our true auteurs. As he's matured in his craft, he's honed a vision and voice that produces encompassing, unique films.
The casting of this film is a bright spot. Veteran actor Sam Neill is brilliant as the damaged, yet gruff and lovable Uncle Hec. Julian Dennison continues the winning formula of pairing Taika Waititi with young, talented actors in his confident portrayal of Ricky Baker. Finally, Waititi troupe member Rachel House brings all the bravado necessary to empower the nearly powerless child protective services officer, Paula. These three performances drive the narrative but it's the relationship between Neill and Dennison that provides the beating heart of the film.
Waititi's big budget, North American debut will happen in 2017 as he helms the latest installment of the Thor series, “Thor Ragnarok.” But “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” and his catalog of New Zealand films will serve as his true foundation. If he can imbue his unique take on character and relationships into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he opens the door for a whole new generation of filmmakers from cultures that could change the landscape of film.
Menominee tribal member Justin Eagle Gauthier has been featured in several literary journals. He is currently enrolled in the LoRez MFA program in creative writing, studying screenwriting at the Institute of American Indian Arts.