It’s the end of the line for chubby troubled Maori teen Ricky (Julian Dennison), who has been dragged to a ramshackle farm right out in the New Zealand bush by grimly determined social worker Paula (Rachel House).
It’s the last foster home that will give Ricky a bed, and despite the kindly welcome from Becca (Rima Te Wiata) and grumpy Hector (Sam Neill), it seems that the monosyllabic Ricky is unimpressed by a life living off the land. He’s too “gangsta” for all that stuff, yet Becca and Hector win him over, and, for the first time in his short life, Ricky feels like part of a family.
But then it’s just Ricky and the devastated, out-of-his-depth Hector, and it looks like the young lad is going back to the city – and probably “juvie” (teen jail) – so he decides to disappear into the bush. Of course, Hector can’t just let him leave, and soon they’re a media sensation, the subject of a huge manhunt by those after a $10,000 reward…
Though he’s the cat among the pigeons, unhappy tearaway Ricky is a softie underneath, and his early scenes with Te Wiata are touching and sweet. Hector though really just wants to be left alone with his dark past, and so shoving the two together and throwing them into the wild beauty of New Zealand gives us plenty of time for them to finally get to know each other.
Rather unbelievably the pair rough it for months, provisioned by occasionally stealing from other hikers and cabins and their own shooting skills, while reward-hunters and Paula are in relentless pursuit (though it does seem absurd that a black-clad SWAT-style team would really roam the millions of acres all that time too).
Anyway, as Hector and Ricky roam the greenery, they have a few adventures – meeting a giant boar, a crazy hermit Bush Man (a hilarious cameo from Rhys Darby). There’s a final chase in what’s surely an homage to Max Max: Fury Road before they’re finally captured and taken back to reality – but by then we know they’re an odd pair that kind of belong together.
A mixture of comedy, drama, whimsy and anarchy (and with plenty of charm to spare, even if sometimes the tone wavers a little), this is almost impossible not to like, and it’s the strong characters that draw you in. They’re all distinct, and though the dialogue is often spare, you want to keep following this adventure.
Director Waititi also helmed other NZ-set comedies What We Do In The Dark, Eagle vs Shark, and episodes of “The Inbetweeners” and “Flight of the Conchords,” and his skills come to the fore here.
The circular shots that show time passing are a clever device in particular, and it’s no surprise Hollywood came a-calling for him (he’s currently directing Thor: Ragnarok with Hiddleston and Hemsworth).
Whether he can get such memorable performances in a green screen superhero affair remains to be seen, but here he’s drawn on the book Wild Pork and Watercress and conjured up a boys-own tale that not only makes you want to visit New Zealand, but makes you wish you could run into these two “wilderpeople.”
A hit at the Sundance Film Festival – and with critics – this on a limited release at the moment, so catch it if you can!
Review by James Bartlett