Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a troubled kid, a real bad egg. At least, that’s how the system has labeled him. Shuttled from foster home to foster home, he’s—supposedly—a delinquent of unprecedented proportions, guilty of the following crimes, according to his social worker: disobedience, stealing, spitting, running away, throwing rocks, kicking stuff, loitering, and graffiti.
Of course, Ricky’s actually an entirely normal 13-year-old boy, albeit one that’s been dealt a very shitty hand. Things finally seem to turn around for Ricky once he meets his newest foster family: Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Uncle Hec (Sam Neill), who live miles from anywhere that could be called civilized. Hec prefers to be left alone and spends most of his time out hunting in the New Zealand bush, but Bella becomes a surprisingly effective mother figure to Ricky; she’s not offended by his sullenness and gives him plenty of room to work through his adolescent anger.
In another director’s hands, this would be a touchy-feely character study, but Taika Waititi’s at work here, taking the absurd, pitch-perfect sense of humor that made What We Do in the Shadows one of the funniest movies of the past few years and applying it to a heartfelt, real-world story. Dennison gives a phenomenal, hilarious performance as Ricky, and Neill gruffly reminds us why he’s so fucking great.
Sure, Hunt for the Wilderpeople’s scope is small, but it gives you everything you could want from a movie: It’s smart, emotional, and even a bit action-packed once Ricky and Hec embark on an unplanned adventure in the forest. But most of all, it’s funny. So, so funny. Wilderpeople is a hugely loveable movie that’s suitable for date night or the whole family, and I know that sounds like a hacky movie poster blurb. But when a movie’s this good, it’s tough to avoid clichés, so I’ll leave you with another: Don’t miss it.