Ricky Baker is angry. He arrives at a ramshackle house and barn in a police car. A stern and equally angry woman climbs out of the car with the boy. Paula represents Child Services, the agency that is delivering Ricky to Bella, a scruffy, middle-aged, hopeful foster mother. Paula doesn’t mince words: the boy has run away from previous homes, he’s been caught “stealing and graffiti-ing.” He’s no good.
Bella greets the child cheerily, and despite the boy’s efforts to escape that very night, relationship-building is on.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is situated in New Zealand and directed by Taika Waititi (also known as Taika Cohen). Waititi is of Te-Whanau-a-Apanui and Jewish descent. The film is a tender, hilarious narrative of love.
When Bella dies suddenly, her taciturn husband, Hector, receives a letter. He hands it to Ricky and orders him to read it out loud. Paula, Ricky reads, will be coming to collect him.
Ricky refuses to go back. He’s just turned thirteen; he’ll just end up in juvenile detention. Hec is uninterested; he didn’t want the boy to begin with and doesn’t much care to have him now. He is grieving for his wife.
After resistance and accidents of fate make it impossible for Hec not to protect Ricky, the two go on the run. Their escape attempt sparks a national manhunt to save Ricky from a presumed “molesterer.”
Hec and Ricky have nothing to tie them together except their knowledge of Bella’s love and their grief for her loss. They don’t much like one another, but faced with happenstance, they throw in their lot together.
The two struggle through the bush; they scramble for food and shelter. Their effort to survive feels tight, even claustrophobic. Climbing through the dense foliage requires one arduous step after another. Suddenly, they break into a summit treating the viewers to panoramas of mountain and lake. Hector, takes a long look around.
Hec: Pretty majestical, aye?
Ricky: I don’t think that’s a word.
Hec: Majestical? Sure it is.
Ricky: Nah, it’s not real.
Hec: What would you know?
Ricky Baker: It’s majestic.
Hec: That doesn’t sound very special, majestical’s way better.
It’s not a word then. But it becomes one.
No scene in this film is without a measure of grace. Boy and man learn to love one another although the child is an insatiable reader and the man is wholly illiterate.
Ricky is fond of haikus. At the outset of the film he tells Bella that a counselor told him to write them to express his feelings. He offers one of his first efforts: “Kingi you wanker / You arsehole, I hate you heaps / Please die soon, in pain.”
There are a few more choice examples. But Ricky, the heavy boy who struggles to run more than a few steps, is a boy who can love. One night he tells Hec he’s written a new haiku. “It’s personal,” when Hec asks him to recite it. Ricky gives in: “Trees. Birds. Rivers. Sky. / Running with my Uncle Hec / Living forever.”
Their run ends as it must – badly. Ricky calls Hec a traitor for giving in and then claims he is, in fact, a “molesterer.” Hec ends in jail yet again.
It’s easy to kill human beings. It’s hard to kill love. In a last meeting, Hector recites his own haiku: “Me and this fat kid / We ran we ate and read books / And it was the best.”
We are living in an America where babies of eight and ten months are separated from their parents. We have been shown terrified children, desperate parents.
No amount of phone calls to our representatives or donations or demonstrations can wipe away the trauma our government has inflicted on families; nothing we do will ever change the ugly and violent and heartless history we have witnessed.
Still: the work we can do must be done. But to be able to do that work, we must find places of relief, of healing, and of hope. We must reacquaint ourselves with the knowledge of humor, of tenderness, of our human capacity to give.
For all my colleagues and friends who are exhausted and worn, please watch Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
You are in need of an artist’s eye for love. Such a narrative could not be created if such a thing did not exist.