There are child actors who make an impression by being so dramatically fluid, they’re like miniature versions of their adult costars. Then there are kids who are anything but polished, but who make an impression for their gleeful ability to carry a scene or a movie anyway. Macaulay Culkin and Jonathan Lipnicki stick with us this way. And save some room on the list for husky, comically “street” newcomer Julian Dennison.
The 13-year-old Dennison lends quirky heart to “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” a New Zealand import with a knack for finding humor in dreary, even ill-advised themes. This tale of a foster-care incorrigible wandering the bush with his new guardian is also a showcase for filmmaker Taika Waititi (“What We Do in the Shadows”), who energetically adapts Kiwi novelist and outdoorsman Barry Crump. (Think of the tonal variety and nature’s grandeur shots as teasers for Waititi’s upcoming “Thor: Ragnarok.”) And Sam Neill, as the wayward boy’s “uncle,” is quietly effective as always.
We meet Ricky (Dennison) when first-time foster mom Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and curmudgeonly spouse Hec (Neill) do — as social services is depositing the gangsta-stylin’ little slug at the couple’s cabin in the boonies. Ricky is disinclined to stay, but irrepressible Bella soon wins him over. He’s less sure about her kooky enthusiasm for boar hunting, though it does make for good eating.
Then Bella makes a premature departure, leaving a sense that Waititi has undermined his story. Cat-sweatered Te Wiata is such a lively presence, there’s a nagging void to scenes of Ricky running away into the hills, and of Hec inadvertently, exasperatedly joining him. But this development ends up cleverly mirroring the viewing experience, as Ricky and Hec’s struggle to express themselves and relate parallels the film’s grind to regain momentum.
They get there eventually, bonding over wildebeest factoids and the crazed national manhunt they trigger when Ricky’s hardline case worker (Rachel House) concludes this is an abduction. It’s dicey territory for parody, especially when the script gives Dennison mischievous “molesterer” quips, but the film generally manages to roll this into its offbeat smorgasbord without offending.
And Waititi can take his themes of neglect seriously, too. Witness a subdued camping scene with Dennison and Neill discussing another foster kid’s troubling end. Polished? Not exactly. Poignant? Definitely.
★ ★ ★
HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE
Written and directed by Taika Waititi, based on the book “Wild Pork and Watercress” by Barry Crump. Starring Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House. At Kendall Square. 101 minutes. PG-13 (thematic elements including violent content, language).