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Twice this weekend I watched movies that bore striking resemblances to Pixar’s Up.

And not only that, but both movies focus on a young protagonist who, while expanding his/her horizons under the mentorship of an unreliable old man, finds inspiration in the pages of The Little Prince. 

And only one of those films was actually called The Little Prince!

And with that strange observation out of the way, I can now segue into my comments on Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

It’s important to note: The “wild” in “wilderpeople” is pronounced the way it is in “wildebeest.” Got it? Okay.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is one of those rare movies that I immediately recognize as special because it makes me want to avoid reviewing it.

Let me explain: I want to write about it in order to celebrate what I love about. I want to indulge my urge to rave and become positively evangelical about it so that it will become a surprise box office hit and inspire more movies like this one. But overpowering both of those urges is this prevailing desire: I want to make it possible for you to have an experience like I did — one absolutely free of spoilers, one completely unexpected and unique.

I walked into Seattle’s SIFF Uptown theater with my friend Wendy, and neither of us had any idea of what the movie was about, or what we were about to discover. And we were laughing in delight and surprise from the opening moments all the way to the unlikely conclusion.

Wendy’s a good friend whose taste for dramas characterized by the quirky, the unusual, and the human has taught me to pay attention to her recommendations. She recommended that Anne and I watch the BBC series The Detectorists, for example, and it became the richest television discovery of this last year for us. If you’ve seen The Detectorists, or Tom McCarthy’s The Station Agent, then you know the kind of low-key, smart, funny, and meaningful comedy we’re talking about here. Hunt for the Wilderpeople might as well take place in the same world as those two favorites.

So I will proceed with caution here, saying as much as I can while divulging as little as possible.

Director Taika Waititi is quickly becoming one of my favorite imaginations making feature films today. His outrageously funny vampire comedy What We Do In the Shadows was in my top five films of 2015, and I can’t wait for the sequel. Wilderpeople, based on the book Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump, isn’t the same kind of comedy — it’s a much more human story.

bella

The film’s correlations with Up become obvious quickly for reasons I won’t spoil. Suffice it to say that Sam Neill plays a grouchy and introverted outdoorsman named Hector (or “Hec”) — a new Zealand version of Carl Fredricksen — and newcomer Julian Dennison plays a self-reliant foster kid named Ricky who has good reasons not to trust adults. They both have missing pieces in their lives. They are both survivors. They both have important attachments to dogs. (“Squirrel?!”) And they both have reasons to venture into the wilderness: to fulfill promises, and to escape the boneheaded assumptions that modern society makes about them.

And so we follow Hec and Ricky on a memorable road movie through the woods, as they berate each other, blaze trails, and bond.

But while I could go on and on about what good company Neill and Dennison are, it’s an actress named Rima Te Wiata who works the most magic. Her character — Bella, a cat-lady-sweater-wearing den mother — endears herself to us so powerfully, and in such a short time, that I really want to see a prequel about how her character (Bella) and Neill’s (Hector) meet and end up together. If I could nominate for Best Supporting Actress, I’d be filling out a form for Rima Te Wiata right now.

Wilderpeople‘s cartoon villains — a Social Services tyrant who seems inspired by Tilda Swinton’s character in Moonrise Kingdom; some armed forces who are as effective as Imperial Stormtroopers (that is to say — they’re incompetent); and a bunch of reward-seeking buffoons with guns — are downright wacky, and this sometimes upsets the film’s careful balance between realism and comedy. (Waititi struck a far more magical balance in What We Do in the Shadows.) But the lapses into extreme goofiness are easy to endure as the film shows a surprising willingness to wander, to meander, to stumble onto strange discoveries, and to keeping the audience guessing. This leads to some wonderfully unusual and unexpected moments. Sort of like real life.

hec and ricky in the trailer

What’s more — this is an inspiring example of just how much can be done with good actors, strong characterization, an interesting natural backdrop, and very little else. The movie looks like it was made on a very low budget, and in this case, less is definitely more. The less-ness of it allows the actors room to play; they’re not competing with special effects or frantic editing. As a result, we get a memorably original turn from Sam Neill that makes it difficult for us to believe this is the same actor we once saw in Jurassic Park.

Perhaps that is why the film won my heart so completely — the way it stands as a sort of antidote to the Big Summer Movie.

But no, there’s more to it than that.

I am currently navigating a complicated transition — I’ve resigned from a job that I held for 13 years, and now I’m moving into a different kind of work altogether. This is leading me and my wife into many stressful uncertainties. We’re calling this new chapter “The Wilderness” — that is to say, we don’t know quite how we will earn a living in the coming year, and we are learning to live in faith that God will provide for our needs. We often feel lost, and yet we know we’re doing the right thing.

At the same time, my friend Wendy, who accompanied me to this film, has made a similar decision: She is walking away from the kind of work she has known for decades. Even though she was extremely successful at it — a genius, really — she also came to know that wisdom was calling her to leave the Familiar and launch into the Wilderness… in search of a healthier life.

And “The Wilderness” — as Hec and Ricky (the Wilderpeople!) discover — can be a place in which a person’s true character is revealed. Anne and I are already learning a great deal about our strengths and weaknesses. We are learning to rely more fully on each other. We are learning that others will be quick to misunderstand the reasons we have for making this journey through difficult territory. And I suspect that we will come out of this with some of the most extraordinarily rewarding experiences of our lives.

And Wendy? I can already see amazing changes in her.

Maybe I should spend some more time on “wilderness” movies in the next few months. (Feel free to recommend your own favorite wilderness films in the Comments.) While the story of Hec and Ricky has very little in common with my own, I found myself captivated by their risks, their failures, their discoveries, and their triumphs. This movie made me laugh a healthy sort of laughter — the kind that comes from a place of hope.

P.S.

Enjoy this movie, folks. Taika Waititi is stepping up from his impressive independent films into the Marvel Universe soon. That kind of “upgrade” has ruined many a good indie filmmaker. I’d hate to see him get so distracted by the powers now at his disposal that he never goes back to intimate filmmaking like this. His imagination is too good to waste on franchise stuff.

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