Two in the Bush

Hunt for the Wilderpeople a film by Taika Waititi.  With Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata

Why should we watch yet another movie about a grouchy old white guy who takes up with a minority youth and teaches him how to survive in a difficult world?  For one thing, the old white guy is Sam Neill, and he’s always worth a trip to the theater.  The world where they’re surviving—the bush country of New Zealand—is gorgeous, and thrilling.  There’s an essential sweetness to the movie that you don’t find in many movies today (though I found it in my favorite of the recent ones, Swiss Army Man).  But the main reason is that the kid, Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), is so winning.  He makes the movie, and keeps us rooting for him.

Ricky could be a minority youth anywhere, but happens to be Maori, in New Zealand.  His mother abandoned him when he was a baby, probably because she was unwed and had no resources; he’s been a part of the foster care system his whole life, so he’s learned to work it.  He’s also learned a kind of psychobabble that has real wisdom in it, and he’s learned to write haiku to express his feelings, including this gem which he recites to his new foster mother Bella (Rima Te Wiata).  “Kingi you wanker / You arsehole, I hate you heaps / Please die soon, in pain.”

Ricky is overweight but completely relaxed in his body.  Like many such kids—like a lot of kids in general—he hides in large baggy clothes, especially a hoodie that he wears with the hood up.  He knows rap and how to dance to it and everything about gangsta culture.  And though he’s gotten in plenty of trouble in the past and runs away from home almost every night at this new home, he’s essentially a sweet boy.  The fact that he has retained his essential sweetness might be one of the hardest parts of the movie to believe.

That sweetness comes out because Bella is unfailingly kind to him, no matter what he does.  He runs away and she comes and finds him.  She never forgets to give him a hot water bottle to take to bed at night.  She’s set up a room and a situation that is tailor made for him.  Fortunately she’s also a big blowsy woman who has a loud laugh and sometimes says the wrong things, so she’s not outwardly an angel.  We find out eventually that she was an orphan and her husband Hec (Neill) was too; she has a thing about taking in orphans.  She really does want things to work out with Ricky.  She not a saint, but she’s a genuinely good person.

She hasn’t been able to rehabilitate Hec quite as much as Ricky, perhaps because she found him when he was older.  He’s not abusive, but he’s definitely grouchy; when Ricky says, “Bella says I should ask if there’s anything I can do for you,” Hec answers, “Yeah.  Leave me alone.”  Hec is very good around the farm, everything from slaughtering pigs (or wild boars) to cooking breakfast, but he has a weakness that is probably the real reason for his grouchiness: he can’t read.  Ricky, who’s a huge reader—it’s obviously one of the things he’s used to comfort his loneliness—can’t believe when he finds out.  He comes right to the edge of making fun of the man.  But he pulls himself up, seeing the pain that this situation has produced.

We can see from a mile away that these two characters are going to be thrown together, and wind up in the bush, where Ricky’s street creds and psychobabble and haiku, even his reading ability, aren’t much help, and where Hec’s knowhow takes over.  Ricky goes off hunting for food and comes back, spectacularly, with nothing, while Hec—who had sprained his ankle earlier and seems to be immobile—is sitting there with a big fat eel for dinner.  When Ricky asks how he knows what to do, it seems that his lack of book learning might almost be an advantage, because he relies on what he calls The Knack.  One simple bit of advice: find water and follow it to higher ground, to its source.  You’re likely to be someplace.  That’s the kind of thing Ricky’s life has not taught him.

The plot that surrounds all this is so unlikely that it has to be tongue in cheek.  The foster care official pursuing Ricky is an insensitive lout who acts more like Rambo than a social worker.  She has created a story that Hec has kidnapped the boy to molest him and she’s sticking to it.  Hec and Ricky keep running into the same trio of rednecks (apparently even New Zealand has rednecks) who try to bully the two of them and are out to capture the reward, but the combination of Hec and Ricky are too much for them.  There’s even a crazy bushman at the end—Psycho Sam (Rhys Darby)—who helps the duo as they’re about to be captured, and there’s the kind of wild car chase that every director in the world seems to want to direct.

We don’t believe all that for a minute.  What we do believe is the relationship between Ricky, Hec, and Bella, also Ricky’s relationship with a couple of Maori people whom he stumbles across during the chase.  It’s the characters who make this movie, not the tired buddy movie conventions.  But the characters are worth the price of admission.  I keep saying that this or that movie is not the feel good movie of the year.  This one might be.