From Touchstone – by Steve Taylor
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a wonderful tickle of the New Zealand funny bone. The people I sat beside wiped tears from their eyes, and then as the credits rolled stood to applaud the script writing skills of director Taika Waititi and the acting of teenager Ricky Barker.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a road trip gone bush.
Troubled teenager Julian Dennison (Ricky Barker) needs a home. At the end of a rural gravel road, Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her silent partner, Hector (Sam Neill) are Julian’s last chance before juvenile detention. When tragedy strikes, Julian goes bush. Tracked by Hector, their actions spark a national manhunt.
At this point, with the end inevitable, interest is maintained by the insertion of the bizarre (extinct birds and selfie seekers) and creative cinematic rifts on pop-culture (Up, Goodbye Pork Pie and 1980s Toyota advertisements). New Zealand cinema has been typecast as dark and brooding (interestingly by Sam Neill himself), evident in the bleak cinematographic palate of a Vigil or the subject matter of Quiet Earth or River Queen.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a welcome reminder that rich veins of humour have always run through New Zealand cinema – from Goodbye Pork Pie and Came a Hot Friday, to Boy (the latter also directed by Taika Waititi).
What we are finding funny is worth pondering. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is an adaptation of Barry Crump’s Wild Pork and Watercress. At the core of Crump’s books are men alone, a reference to the name of John Mulgan’s 1939 novel.
In the literature of Crump and Mulgan, rather than embrace the emotional work required of long term relationships, men are adrift from commitment and conflict. Males alone are the core of Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
The humour that surrounds Julian’s use of haiku is not only funny, but a reminder of emotional deprivation. The sadness at the core of these constructions of being male is magnified by the shift in time. Wild Pork and Watercress, written by Crump 30 years ago, is contemporized in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. John Campbell reports for national news, while cell phone technology is used to track Julian and Hector.
In New Zealand today, there are far too many Julian’s and the rate of child neglect remains unacceptably high. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a film well worth seeing, even as the light hearted laughter involves themes that should weigh on our heart instead of tickle our funny bone.
Religion has a presence in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Director Waititi plays a church minister, his sermon a head scratching piece of nonsense. Shifting from funeral scene to plot development, Julian and Hector’s act of going bush becomes a form of redemption.
Isolation deepens the relationship between Julian and Hector. The bush can bond. The result is a secularized affirmation of Christian understandings of the grace possible in creation and through relationship.
Go to Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Laugh until you cry. Return home. Commit to acting in ways that turn the tears of New Zealand children into laughter.
Rev Dr Steve Taylor is principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. He is the author of Built for change (Mediacom: forthcoming) and writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.