Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 41 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 3; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’
The alienated Hec (Sam Neill) would not consider himself a shepherd, but he does set out to look for a “lost sheep” in this tale set in the wilds of New Zealand. His wife Bella (Rima Te Wiata), with a heart as big as Texas, has taken in as a foster child the 12 year-old Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison). A fan of gangsta music and lifestyle (we see quick scenes of his petty thefts, vandalism, and fights), the boy at first had climbed back into the police car that had brought him to the Baker’s farm when his quick look-around revealed what a barren place his new foster home would be. The child welfare worker Paula (Rachel House) obviously wants to dump him as quickly as possible, so she really gives him no choice. Over the next few days the boy does his best to resist Bella’s many kindnesses, but he slowly gives in to her gracious love, especially at his birthday party when she surprises him with the gift of his own dog. True to his style, he names it Tupac, after the American rapper who was murdered in 1996.
During all this time Hec has barely noticed the boy, let alone talked with him. Suddenly the heart of the home is snuffed out by Bella’s fatal heart attack. What passes for a “Christian” funeral service is as bleak as Hec himself. The grief-stricken husband tells Ricky that taking him in was Bella’s, not his idea, so the authorities will pick him up on Friday.
Packing up his things, Ricky sets off into the forested mountains. Thus Hec finds himself in the unwanted role of shepherd going after the lost sheep. During the process of finding him, he will find himself, as well. Also Ricky changes for the better, becoming the kind of boy that Bella had seen in him all along. A second hunt also commences when Paula and her policeman companion arrive on Friday and find both males gone and a large shed that Ricky had burnt to the ground with an effigy of himself inside. Paula mistakenly decides that Hec has kidnapped the boy, and when some sleazy hunters who had encountered Ricky and Hec report to her, the word spreads that Hec is a “pervert” abusing the child.
The wilderness hunt goes on for over 4 months. Hec had intended to return right after tracking Ricky down, but during one of their many arguments Hec trips over a log, badly injuring his leg. It is six weeks before it heals so that he can walk for any distance. Meanwhile the Paula’s hunt has turned into a national concern, thanks to the media the media. Helicopters, dozens of police, an armored personnel carrier, and eventually even a line of army tanks join in what becomes a madcap pursuit of the two fugitives.
During the pursuit, besides Hec’s injuring his leg, the two encounter a dangerous wild boar, hunt for their meat while stealing canned goods from various cabins they come across, barely escape from three bounty hunters, and eventually find shelter with a wild-eyed conspiracy theorist named “Psycho Sam” (Rhys Darby), the two form a bond that would have gladdened the heart of Bella. Ricky is a reader (we see him holding a copy of The Little Prince) who also writes haiku poetry, but Hec apparently cannot read at all. One tender moment consists of Ricky reading a poem he has written about them, and Hec says that he likes it, obviously delighted that his name is used in a poem. Ricky still needs to improve his reading skills, as evident in the scene when he sees a wanted poster with their description, and reads out loud, “Faulkner is cauc-asian” – well, they got that wrong because you’re obviously white.” At the end of the film Hec himself is coping with the rudiments of literacy.
Basing his film on Barry Crump’s 1986 novel Wild Pork and Watercress, director Taika Waititi has given us a rewarding family film that ventures off the beaten trail. Both the young actor playing the chubby boy and Sam Neill as the gruff Hec are outstanding, nor will you forget Rima Te Wiata as Bella, her maternal love lighting up the too few scenes that she is in. Rachel House is also fun to watch, adding droll humor to the proceedings, such as the following exchange when she and the policeman confront Ricky across a steep gulley. She orders him to stop, and Ricky, replies, “I’ll never stop running!” She calls out, “Yeah, and I’ll never stop chasing you – I’m relentless, I’m like the Terminator.” The boy declares defiantly, “I’m more like the Terminator than you!” She answers, “I said it first, you’re more like Sarah Connor, and in the first movie too, before she could do chin-ups.”
Add to this the gorgeous New Zealand forest and steep mountain scenes, and you have a real winner of a film.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the August issue of VP.