“Hunt for the Wilderpeople”: Outlandish outlaws in New Zealand’s Maori bush

This is a banner week for South Seas Cinema, the film genre set and shot in the Pacific Islands. It kicks off with writer/director Taika Waititi’s gem, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, made on location in Aotearoa/New Zealand. This good-natured, well-made film is a sheer delight and absolute joy to behold, and although there is some off-color language and violence, is recommended viewing for most children and families.

In essence, Wilderpeople is about an urban Maori (the indigenous people of NZ) juvenile delinquent type, Ricky Baker (the droll, roly-poly Julian Dennison), who is placed in a foster home somewhere out in the bush. There he is begrudgingly adopted by “Uncle” Hec, a Caucasian ex-con and “bush man” played by the great Sam Neill. (Did you know that in addition to co-starring as Dr. Alan Grant in 1993’s Jurassic Park and 2001’s Jurassic Park III, as well as in 1999’s Hawaii-set Molokai, Neill grew up in the South Island of New Zealand and co-directed/co-wrote an insightful documentary about that country’s movies called Cinema of Unease?)

Due to non-technical circumstances beyond their control, when the state bureaucracy decides to remove Ricky from his foster home and send him to the “juvie” detention center for young “offenders,” Ricky and Hec hit the bush. The runaways return to nature, living off the land, as a massive, months-long manhunt searches high and low for the outlaws in what Aussies would call the “outback.”

Enough said about the plot, which builds up to a Thelma and Louise type of ending – except this is more of a comedy. Wilderpeople is really about family, love and the bonds that form between people (oh yeah, and between humans and canines). I guess it’s also a statement about multi-culti unity and a condemnation of government bureaucracy. It’s highly amusing and occasionally hilarious. Waititi, who is part-Jewish/part-Maori (hey, don’t laugh: My daughter, the singer Marina Davis, is part-Jewish/part-Samoan and she lives in Auckland, NZ), has a keen film sense and the low budget movie is shot with a discerning eye and feeling for cadence, and is thoroughly cinematic and extremely entertaining in every single frame.

The supporting cast, including Maori actress Rima Te Wiata (whose father was a renowned opera singer) as “Aunt” Bella, is letter perfect. Other standouts include Oscar Knightley – who co-starred in 2006’s Samoan Wedding and Sione’s 2, which are to Polynesian movies what Fridaytype flicks are to African American films – as a clueless copper. His sidekick, the overbearing child welfare bureaucrat Paula, is portrayed by Maori actress Rachel House (2002’s Whale Rider). Kiwi actor Rhys Darby plays Psycho Sam, a back-to-nature wild man (and wildly funny man) who lives off the grid and seems like a less threatening cross between ZZ Top, Yosemite Sam and the Unabomber.

Taika Waititi, who is also an actor, steals the show in a cameo as a clergyman who – like those daft evangelists who somehow think devout Christians should endorse Donald Trump – has at best a nodding acquaintanceship with the Gospel. This triple threat co-starred in and co-directed/co-wrote 2014’s vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows and directed episodes of the New Zealanders in New York series Flight of the Conchords that aired on HBO. Just as Once Were Warriors‘ helmer Lee Tamahori went on to direct a James Bond pic, his fellow Maori moviemaker Waititi is similarly “going Hollywood,” helming 2017’s big budget Thor: Ragnorak.

Wilderpeople has reportedly earned more money at the NZ box office than any other moving picture ever released in the Land of the Long White Cloud, and the audience at the ArcLight Hollywood laughed their collective heads off and gave it a well-deserved ovation. Young Mr. Dennison made a humorous personal appearance for a post-screening Q&A and after-party at the Record Parlour on Selma Street. It is probably the best picture to come out of NZ since 1994’s Once Were Warriors (that masterpiece’s female lead, the inestimable Rena Owen, attended the ArcLight screening).

In additional South Seas Cinema news: On June 27, Josh Fox’s anti-global warming documentary How To Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change premieres on HBO. This eco-doc was shot, in part, on location in the South Pacific. And from Waititi to Waikiki, the comedy Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates – shot, in part, on location in Hawaii – opens July 8. In the meantime, you can’t go wrong this weekend hunting down a theater playing the knee-slapping, heartwarming Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a joy for people who love their indies to run wild. I simply can’t recommend this highly original rib-tickler enough – and bring the kiddies (over around nine or so). 

L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell co-authored “Made In Paradise, Hollywood’s Films of Hawaii and the South Seas” and “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” (see here).


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.