One of the best coming-of-age films to hit American theaters, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” comes from far-flung New Zealand. It’s based on a book by Barry Crump, a national treasure there, and has become the highest-grossing local production in the country’s history. Here, however, it’s an art-house release playing locally in a handful of theaters. That means you might have limited time to see this lovely, lopsided gem of a movie.
A wry comedy with a tender core, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” tells the story of a troubled foster child, Ricky (newcomer Julian Dennison), who is dropped off at a remote cabin in the care of Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her husband, Hec (Sam Neill). “He’s a real bad egg,” says Ricky’s child services officer, Paula (Rachel House). Gravely, she lists his worst crimes as spitting, kicking and “throwing stuff.”
This is our first clue that “Wilderpeople” takes place in a hostile yet somehow wonderful world. True evil may not exist, but uncaring institutions and flawed adults do. Bella showers Ricky with love, but also with mean jokes about his weight. Hec simply shoos him away. As children do, Ricky makes the best of it, but when misfortune strikes, he runs off into the bush, pursued by a reluctant Hector. Thanks to a misunderstanding — some hunters mistake Hec for a pedophile — the two become the subject of a nationwide manhunt.
Written and directed by Taika Waititi, possibly the best known Kiwi director since Peter Jackson (he’s spearheading the upcoming Marvel blockbuster “Thor: Ragnarok”), “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is an oddball story populated by delightfully strange characters. Its linchpin, though, is Neill, whose performance as Hector — an anti-social grouch with no use for a kid who speaks in gangsta rap — may be his finest to date. Hec never melts emotionally, which makes his eventual fondness for Ricky all the more moving.
If it’s possible to be cockeyed and clear-eyed at once, this movie achieves it. The combination of eccentric humor and hard-won truth makes “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” something special.
Cast: Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House.
Writer-director: Taika Waititi.
An Orchard release. Running time: 101 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: Tower, O Cinema Miami Beach, South Beach, Sunset Place, Cinepolis; in Broward: Gateway, Cinema Paradiso Hollywood.