If you haven't seen the New Zealand import "Hunt for the Wilderpeople," which is playing at the Magic Lantern, you might want to check it out. That's the argument that I make with the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:
To say Ricky Baker is incorrigible would be a massive understatement. Barely into his teens, the parentless New Zealand boy for most of his life has been shunted from one foster family to the next. And even a short list of his transgressions – which includes thievery, vandalism, arson and more – would be enough to earn him a trip to juvenile hall.
But Ricky – one of two central characters in New Zealand writer-director Taika Waititi’s feature film “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” – is being given one last chance. Either he makes a go of it with the backwoods couple Bella and Hec, or juvey looms large in his future.
That’s where Waititi’s film begins, with Ricky being shepherded to his new home by a by-the-book child-care worker and her ever-compliant police-officer partner. But instead of treading the plotline of so many previous stories of mismatched partners, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” transforms into a wild, at times fantastic, trek that – for a number of reasons – never ignores the emotional strains that, gradually, link and then bind these partners securely.
The first twist comes early on when, after just beginning to accept his new home, Ricky is jerked suddenly back into insecurity. And his response is classic: He heads into the bush, convinced that he is better off on his own. That he gets immediately lost and runs through his rations in about the first half hour, is as humorous as the near-catastrophe he inadvertently caused before leaving. And that sense of humor is what filmmaker Waititi uses to keep his movie from sliding into melodrama.
The second twist involves Hec – played by veteran actor Sam Neill – whose pursuit of Ricky comes first out of a sense of obligation but evolves into eventual affection for the boy. And why not? As played by Julian Dennison, as winning an adolescent actor as you’re apt to find, Ricky is a total charmer.
That the two bond even as they become the focus of a national manhunt fits naturally into Waititi’s narrative, with Hec being cast not only as a kidnapper but also a pervert. We know the truth, of course, which sets the tone as “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” dashes toward its climax, which involves an eccentric bushman, dozens of police vehicles and Ricky’s acting like off-road NASCAR driver.
Waititi gets a lot out of his cast. Even at age 13, Dennison is a natural-born performer. Though she’s not onscreen that long, Rima Te Wiata as the earthy, loving Bella makes a sincere impact. And Neill, some of whose best performances over a long career have pitted him with children, is the same as ever: low-key but carrying emotions that simmer just below the surface.
Not everything that Waititi comes up with works. The characters of the child-care worker and her lackey are played too broadly, and at times the film’s pacing feels just a tad too frenetic.
But those are quibbles. “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” tackles some fairly serious issues, but it handles those issues with just the right sense of the sweet.