Raising Hec

Sam Neill goes feral with kid in tow in comedy-adventure flick

A joke that you can tell anyone—that’s rare. So is a movie that can be recommended with pleasure to anyone, of any age. In Hunt for the Wilderpeople by director Taika Waititi, lush New Zealand landscapes counter a sense of humor so toast-dry that it makes British comedies of the 1950s seem overripe.

Co-star Sam Neill is both touching and funny—Oscar-worthy, if you like—as an old illiterate tramp turned farmer. He’s called Hec Faulkner. It’s short for Hector, and the Faulkner part isn’t far off. This noble, never-vainglorious actor conveys the irresistible movie appeal of a solitary elder forced into the role of uncle against his will.

Young Ricky (Julian Dennison) is brought to a remote, shabby farm—a foster kid dropped off by our villainess, Paula (Rachel House), a massive, squinty-eyed social worker who calls her charge “a bad egg” for crimes such as spitting off of a freeway overpass. Bella (Rima Te Wiata), the lady of the house, examines plump Ricky: “You hungry? Silly question. Look at ya.” As for her husband, Hec, he barely tolerates the kid.

When we lose Bella—an event Waititi handles with taste and distance—the child-welfare people want the boy back in custody. But Hec is determined to not let that happen. He and the boy run off into the woods. The police sound the Kiwi equivalent of an Amber Alert.

One of Waititi’s knacks is contrasting this damp, ferny world of small reactions and big skies with fantasies of American action movie and gangsta rap. Neill’s gift as an actor is that he’s not troubled with these legends of busted caps and dogged cops—he’s a man of few words, unflappable as a true Western hero, with an eye firmly on the horizon.

‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ opens Friday, July 15, at Summerfield Cinemas, 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa. 707.522.0719.