June 2016

Arts & Letters

Don’t lose that Ricky

By Luke Davies
The Kiwi charm of Taika Waititi’s ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’

In Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople (in national release) we open on a majestic aerial view of dense New Zealand forest. It could be the beginning of some ominously dark Norwegian crime thriller – or Top of the Lake. But Waititi is a director of sunnier disposition, and he is not about to stray for long from the comic warmth that drives his films. A car pulls up to an isolated farmstead, and out steps a policeman, an officer from child-welfare services and a large 12-year-old boy dressed in a preposterous melange of hip-hop gear. The boy is Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison). Looking at the old wooden farmhouse and the bush in all directions, he seems unimpressed by his surroundings.

Ricky is to be fostered out to the gregarious but possibly unhinged Auntie Bella (Rima Te Wiata), who doesn’t have much in the way of a filter. “You’re a big fella! Who ate the guy who ate all the pies, eh?” Paula (Rachel House), the welfare officer, tells Bella that Ricky’s a “real bad egg”. “We’re talking … disobedience. Stealing. Spitting. Running away. Throwing rocks. Kicking stuff. Defacing stuff. Burning stuff. Loitering. And graffiti-ing. And that’s just the stuff we know about.”

“This is your new home,” Paula tells Ricky, who’s done a quick tour of the grounds and has already climbed back into the car, ready to move on. “There’s no one else who wants you, OK?”

A man emerges from the forest, carrying a freshly killed wild boar on his shoulder. This is gruff Uncle Hec (Sam Neill). Like Ricky, Hec is not so keen on the whole foster-parenting idea. “You ever worked on a farm before?” he asks the child. “Or are you just ornamental?”

In Waititi’s beautiful Boy (2010), the eponymous 11-year-old hero (James Rolleston) is looking after his brood of brothers, sisters and cousins while his grandmother heads off to a funeral for a few days. Boy is comfortable enough in their isolated world – to which his feckless dad, Alamein (played by Waititi), returns from prison. (There’s an edge of irony in the title, for the film is Boy’s coming-of-age tale, while Alamein may be the biggest child of them all.) In Wilderpeople, the situation is inverted. Ricky is the uncomfortable outsider, while Hec is almost part of the landscape.

The film hints that Hec has been something of a rescue project for Bella. He was “just a scruffy white drifter who smelt like methylated spirits” when she met him. He is not one for human company nowadays, it seems. Ricky, meanwhile, is clueless, and a little numb. The world is hard for him to read. But he likes hip-hop and rap, and in his awkward dress ensemble you can sense a yearning for a faraway and exotic pop culture. When Bella and Hec give Ricky a dog he names it Tupac, explaining that it’s the name of “just this really cool rapper, and he’s, like, my best friend”.

Ricky runs away, but doesn’t get far before Bella finds him. Nature is overwhelming. “Oh man, I got poop on my kicks. Go away, insect!” Waititi is a master of imbuing his characters with great tenderness – even in their most slapstick moments. For all Boy’s laugh-out-loud absurdity, it’s impossible to disentangle the overt comedy from the gentle melancholy of its nostalgia for a simpler time, tranquilly recollected. In What We Do in the Shadows (2014), Waititi’s beguiling mockumentary about a group of vampires trying their best to get along in a contemporary Wellington share house, the main vampire (Waititi) throws disarmingly sweet glances at the camera crew as he tries to keep the peace among his fractious companions. (Waititi has a brilliantly demented cameo in Wilderpeople, too.) Early in the new film there’s a touching moment where Ricky, in the stillness of his new bedroom, hugs the hot water bottle that Bella left in his bed the night before – remembering both its warmth and her kindness. Waititi’s films are certainly light-hearted, but it’s their big-heartedness that we take away from them.

As Bella skins possums, Ricky recites her a haiku he’s written in response to his new environment. “There’s heaps of maggots. / Maggots wriggling in dead sheep. / Like moving rice. Yuck.” During one troubled period, a counsellor had taught him how to write haikus. “They help me express my feelings,” Ricky tells Bella. He’s no Wallace Stevens yet, but we can see how even something as simple as the strict rules of the haiku, when set against the chaos of the foster care system, form a kind of order through which Ricky can process his life. “Kingi you wanker. / You arsehole. I hate you heaps. / Please die soon, in pain.” (“OK,” says Bella. “That’s enough haikus for today.”)

When circumstances change tragically, it looks as if Ricky will be returned to state care. By now, of course, he doesn’t want to leave the farm. “I heard they do experiments at the boys’ home,” he tells Hec. “Waterboarding, torture, that sort of thing. This one boy got acid thrown in his face because he asked for more Weet-Bix.”

So Ricky runs away into the bush for a second time. Hec finds him easily, but when Hec falls and twists his leg, the two become temporarily stranded in the wilderness. It’s no big deal for Hec, other than the fact that Ricky is a consistently annoying presence to him. But to the outside world it looks like an abduction. The media latches on and, unbeknown to Ricky and Hec, a major manhunt is underway.

By the time three searchers find the duo in a hikers’ hut, Hec has had enough and tries to downplay the situation. “We got lost, I got injured, he’s fine,” he explodes. “It was basically a holiday.”

“Not a real holiday,” Ricky chimes in. “’Cos he made me do stuff.”

The men turn, horrified. Their worst suspicions are being confirmed. “Like what?” asks one of them, quietly.

“Just stuff,” says Ricky. “He had a sore leg so he made me do things for him. It was hard at first because my hands were so soft. But I got used to it. I didn’t really wanna do it, but it was the only way to survive.” And on he rambles, digging a very deep hole.

Hec is horrified, too: he knows where this is leading.

As it unfurls, the film becomes both a chase movie and a buddy movie. It has its clunky moments – Russell Mulcahy proved how difficult it is to shoot believable wild boar attacks more than 30 years ago in Razorback, and Waititi hasn’t really cracked the code here. And it feels like Rhys Darby, so beloved in Flight of the Conchords and here playing a paranoid isolationist bushman, has dropped into the film from an overbaked pantomime. But Wilderpeople’s faults are minor when weighed against its easygoing charms.

Waititi can be an eclectic filmmaker – a bowerbird at times, referencing any number of other cinematic moments. He lets a solid chunk of Leonard Cohen’s version of ‘The Partisan’ play over a montage of Hec and Ricky’s wilderness tribulations; it’s reminiscent of the way Robert Altman let three near-entire Cohen songs play out in his languidly beautiful McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971). For film nerds, too, there’s a delightful little Easter egg: a riff on the scene in Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) where bounty hunters discover Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek’s bush camp.

For the two outsiders, Ricky and Hec, a kind of affection grows out of their wary common ground. Ricky even continues with his haikus – form against the formlessness. “Trees. Birds. Rivers. Sky. / Running with my Uncle Hec. / Living forever.”

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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