The Wilderpeople is almost entirely different from that earlier outing. Although also very funny, it is a sweet, sincere movie that we found charming. It also doesn’t hurt that much of the film is shot in New Zealand’s gorgeous wilderness, which makes it a visual feast for the eyes.
The plot centers on Ricky (Julian Dennison), a very urban juvenile delinquent whose on his last attempt at being foster-placed before being sent to juvenile prison. We see him being taken far out in the country to the home of Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hec (Sam Neill), on the not-all-that-bad theory that taking him out of his urban environment may bring about positive change.
Bella is a woman of native ancestry, who hopes one day to make a better connection with her roots. She gains great “cred” with Ricky when he sees her single-handedly kill a feral pig with her knife, whooping with excitement as she does. However, she’s also very tender-hearted, and wants Ricky as a child she hasn’t had, a warmth that Ricky responds to. (American viewers may not fully appreciate how caring a gesture a filled hot water bottle in bed is, in a house with no central heating--.)
Hec, on the other hand, is a dour man who doesn’t want Ricky, and barely tolerates his presence for Bella’s sake.
When Bella dies suddenly, both Hec and Ricky are devastated. When it looks like it will be juvenile prison for Ricky since no one else wants him, and he can’t stay with Hec alone, he lights out for the hills, relying on the woodcraft he’s learned from Hec and Bella.
He’s soon overtaken by Hec, a far superior woodsman, but Hec takes a fall that injures his ankle, forcing them to camp in the woods for weeks until he’s able to walk home. When they encounter a group of jerky hunters (hunters that are jerks, not hunting jerky--), they find out that they are “wanted” and that Hec is suspected of kidnapping and sexually abusing Ricky.
He, it turns out, has been in prison years ago, can’t face the possibility of going back, and won’t abandon Ricky to the juvenile version, so the two head back to the wilderness. However, the report that they have been encountered and escaped, sets off a serious manhunt fanatically lead by social worker Paula (Rachel House), who is about equal parts Miss Hannigan from “Annie,” and Inspector Javert from “Les Miserables,” with a dash of Nurse Ratched from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” thrown in.
The pair manage to elude capture for months, becoming famous and romantic outlaws in the process. They have numerous adventures and hairbreadth escapes before being finally brought to bay.
The ultimate conclusion is both surprising and pleasing. While the plot might not be entirely new (I seem to recall other films with a similar premise, although I can’t think of a title now--), the handling is fresh and delightful. Highly recommended.
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