Most kids’ movies deal with adult concepts, but do so within the safety of certain formulae that ensure that no matter the level of strife undergone along a movie’s arc, it’ll end happily, with the central child — who inevitably wanders into dangerous territory, and who is separated from their family or begins without a family — returned to a comfortable, loving and familial place. Without saying how that happens, I’ll say that Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople (out in the U.S. on Friday), doesn’t break the rules that keep movies psychologically safe for kids. However, Waititi — who co-wrote/directed What We Do in the Shadows — accesses the frightening depths of Good Movies for Adults from within the narrative predictability of children’s stories, and does so with grace and inventiveness. (In more ways than one, Hunt for the Wilderpeople has a close companion in Moonrise Kingdom, though unlike Wes Anderson, Waititi has more faith in his direction of emotion, and, though also quirkily stylized, relies less on it as a diversion.)
It also happens to be the funniest film you can imagine about a delinquent, overweight foster kid (Ricky Baker, played by Julian Dennison) whose new, unconditionally kind foster mom (Rima Te Wiata) suddenly dies and leaves him with his unwelcoming foster father (Sam Neill), with the result that Baker decides to stage his own suicide and run away into the wilderness, pursued by a group of policemen and a child services officer. (The humor derived from the objectively sad situation often comes from the deadpan clumsiness and illogic employed by some characters: for his staged suicide, Ricky crudely draws a face onto a ceramic plate, attaches it to an outfit of his, and burns it in a barn alongside a suicide note that reads: “I’ve burned myself alive inside this barn. As you can see if you look inside this barn.”).
In the wilderness, Ricky happens to run back into his cantankerous foster father. Stuck on the run with one another, the two find themselves forging something resembling a familial bond. That encompasses most of the film’s plot, which is not much of a surprise but not really a problem: this is a film about danger and adventure, where adventure and danger aren’t scary but rather comforting, because they never feel like anything but a means to love and belonging. This means that some extended wilderness scenes are a little boring — as the stakes don’t feel the highest — but Waititi, Dennison and Neill build characters endearing enough that we root for the mutual acceptance we kinda know is inevitable.
As the frequently-displaced Maori foster child, Ricky, Dennison upstages everyone, even Neill, nailing the cadences of Waititi’s humor as they rest atop the sadness of a rootless childhood. Ricky fantasizes about himself as a young, urban troublemaker — naming his new pitbull Tupac (interestingly, Pitbull doesn’t come to mind) — and idealizing becoming “a drug dealer, a rapper and [dying] in a drive-by.” The delivery of these lines could either be discordantly socially fraught and/or just kinda depressing if it weren’t for Dennison having such a keen sense of when to play into the heightened ridiculousness of the film, and when to pull back to subtly break your heart. There’s a moment when he hugs the hot water bottle that his foster mother’s placed in his bed; handled by another actor and director, the hug would be too tight, or too extended, and ultimately very trite, yet there’s a delicateness and care to the emotionalism here. Ricky’s balance of keen sensitivity and defensive, angsty pre-adolescent male posturing is perhaps most apparent in his taste for haiku — with which he writes about things any angsty pre-adolescent might write about in a less, well, sensitive form. (One standout line, following a recitation of one of his haiku, is “That’s my haiku about maggots — it’s called ‘Maggots.'”)
Beyond Ricky, Waititi has written a series of rich supporting characters who manage to be ever-so-slightly over the top while never seeming outside the realm of emotional reality. In her 10-ish minutes of screen-time, Rima Te Wiata is able to bring enough nuance to the soon-to-be-dead-maternal-figure-whose-death-the-central-child-character-will-need-to-recover-from archetype to make the loss seem quite palpable, making the character more than a mere narrative catalyst. And as the self-serious child services worker Paula, Rachel House is actually extremely funny. Her desire for her job to be more police-like makes her distraughtly determined tone particularly rich: at one point, when she meets face-to-face with the child she’s pursuing, she claims that she’s like “the Terminator”; when he argues that it’s him who’s more like the Terminator, she actually continues engaging in this battle over Schwarzenneger-dom with a child, contesting, “You’re more like Sarah Connor; in the first movie before she could do chin-ups.” And Neill, perhaps playing the most archetypically uninteresting character — repressed white father figure with a warm heart buried beneath gruffness — is exactly the less interesting gruff and unpleasant father figure archetype you’d want to slowly build affection for.
The source material of Hunt for the Wilderpeople is Barry Crump’s Wild Pork and Watercress, and Waititi referred to it in Entertainment Weekly as being “a poetic slow journey” and a “beautiful book” that’s “not funny, and…not quite suited to the cinema.” He said that he’d actually written a first draft years ago that was more of a traditionally paced “arthouse film” and then completely rewrote it to make it “more entertaining, and funny, and more of an adventure.” Because of the predictability of the narrative — wherein we pretty much know that despite its dealings with personal tragedy and the inherent loneliness of childhood, strewn atop a narrative of parental abandonment, things will turn out heartwarmingly alright — the film can give further into the whimsy of a children’s adventure story. Yet it seems to maintain the right amount of the poetry Waititi alludes to.
The film takes all the precautions of a movie that can be handled by children: sadness isn’t evaded, but it’s quickly paired with adventure and humor, and the danger of the adventure is present, but never so present as to leave the tight play-space of narrative structures that won’t too gravely sadden a child viewer. Rather than breaking this comfortable structure entirely, it’s happy to stretch it by filling it with all of the darkness, honesty, and deadpan wit that a film that exists within these set limits can. Because it is predictable, at 101 minutes, it can feel a bit prolonged, but that hardly matters compared to the rare feeling of having come across a movie that can feel so vital while adhering to structural conventions.