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Neill (left) and Dennison in a scene from Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Their relationship in the movie morphs from mutual distrust into something approaching peaceful co-existence.

Low-budget New Zealand comedy has its charms

Nov 18, 2016 5:50 AM

RICKY Baker, a chubby 13-year-old orphan with a permanent hoodie, a troubled past and a healthy disdain for authority, is "A Real Bad Egg" - as the opening chapter heading in Hunt for the Wilderpeople informs us. This is the kind of kid who gets a kick out of driving grown-ups to despair.

As a last resort Ricky (Julian Dennison) is banished to a farm in the boonies where his new adoptive mother Bella (Rima Te Wiata) tries winning him over with affection and a pet puppy he names Tupac.

Bella has a big heart and a knack for bringing out the best in people, having previously achieved success with another restoration project in the form of husband Hector or Hec (Sam Neill), a grumpy 60-something Crocodile Dundee-type who thrives in the bush, not social situations.

But Hunt for the Wilderpeople isn't exactly a movie about a mismatched-pair or a coming-of-age tale. Instead, this low-budget New Zealand charmer, written and directed by Taika Waititi and based on the comic novel Wild Pork and Watercress by the late Kiwi outdoorsman Barry Crumb, takes off in an unexpected direction.

Ricky has a positive start to life on the farm but adversity strikes back and inevitably, he and Hec are thrown together, ending up deep in the bush and on the lam, pursued by an over-zealous child welfare officer (Rachel House) and a posse of would-be captors.

Subsequent chapter headings describe various aspects of this unlikely adventure, which is infused with elements of comedy, drama and social commentary, much of it inspired by the writings of Crumb. At its core is the relationship between Hec and Ricky, which morphs from mutual distrust into something approaching peaceful co-existence.

In the beginning, Ricky is aghast at having to exist without essentials like electricity and toilet paper, while Hec is reluctant to take responsibility for the young troublemaker. Then Hec breaks a foot and the tables are turned, but it turns out the boy's a quick learner; as the incidents pile up the pair continues to elude detection while their shared objective bonds them together.

Their weeks on the run turn into months and their story starts to take on heroic proportions, tracked by media and the authorities.

Ricky and Hec are not alone in the wilderness either. In one instance Ricky runs into a family that provides a brief respite and in a later interlude, he and Hec encounter an off-the-grid oddball, appropriately named Psycho Sam (Rhys Darby).

Meanwhile, Ricky composes haiku verses to describe his experiences, adding a poetic dimension to Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Somehow, the harsh reality of their situation is left behind, replaced by a Boy's Own-style adventure that is, in their own words, "pretty majestical". Even Hec, who can't read or write at first, gets into the act: "Me and this fat kid/ We ran, we ate, we read books/ And it was the best."

Rating: B-