Life and death, mere moments apart, catalyze the narratives of both Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic and Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Sketched out, both films are similar, and yet they take such drastic turns in how they focus on subjects that seem as discordant as life and death itself.
To what degree the death of Ben’s (Viggo Mortensen) wife really matters to Captain Fantastic is negligible, as it makes no binary between paternal or maternal parenting styles. And yet, parental style is all that it has on its mind, its implications set up to be unanswerable, like a strawman argument ready to fall. Ben and his late wife have set up their family in the woods like survivalists, homeschooling their children so that reciting the Bill of Rights is reflexive, and explaining their legacy is even more so reflexive. Their eldest son, Bodevan (George MacKay), is a Maoist, and one of their daughters spouts randoms facts about ways to die, as they collectively celebrate Noam Chomsky Day.
Their education and upbringing, from presenting on String Theory on a moment’s notice to “training” every morning in a rather Bear Grylls style, is unconventional if you’ve never met someone who was homeschooled, or never met someone who got into an Ivy League school. Their intellectual and physical superiority is something that takes a curious role in the film: it’s at first presented as novelty, then as aspiration, then as warning, then as aspiration again. There aren’t any easy answers to “what is the right way to raise a child,” but Captain Fantastic provokes those questions with the intention of leaving them hanging in a frustratingly condescending way.
The family’s quest to attend their late mothers’ funeral and honor her will forces the film into a road movie structure, which means grafting a “fish out of water” formula onto its narrative and character arcs. These low key social anarchists — regularly railing against capitalism, consumerism and corporatization — must navigate a world that is dominated by a capitalist, consumerist and corporate ideology. (Note: I asked about this juxtaposition during the Q&A and Ross seemed mildly offended, offering that he didn’t intend to make a polemical film.) Whether or not a polemic argument regarding personal ideology, or even parenting, was intended, it still reads pretty overtly in every scene. Though the precocity of the children is often utilized as comedy, it nonetheless feels stark in its contrasting of this family’s belief system, way of living and everyone else’s. But the journey on Steve the green bus doesn’t really lead to much other than multiple false endings, and it ends up pulling the rug from under the audience in terms of what normalcy means to this family unit. What tensions exist between father and child are underwritten and never really justified and thought out well. And while Captain Fantastic is frequently amusing, it never ends up being about much of anything. It’s not much about family, or manhood, or parenting, or personal convictions, or even the trauma of losing a loved one, and the platforms upon which it even attempts to build those ideas only end up in shambles.
In comparison, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which also begins with an aerial shot, is interested in child/parent dynamics to a point where its sense of humor is integral to the development of its characters. Its dry and culturally literate comedy often has the smell of death on it: recently adopted “bad egg” Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) settles into his new home with “Aunt” Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and “Uncle” Hec (Sam Neill), but just as he begins to bond with his aunt, she passes away. It’s a cruelly absurdist, or absurdly cruel, way to begin a film, and yet delightful: in the face of rebirth, death looms over all.
Ricky’s escape into the Bush has Hec chase after him, and in turn, Child Welfare social worker Paula (Rachel House) after both of them. The months-long chase into the woods after these buggers is a microcosm, as Paula repeatedly says “no child left behind,” echoing George W. Bush’s polarizing educational program in the United States. Though the film is from New Zealand, these are institutions that at once suggest that they exist in support of the child and for the child’s own good, yet they are, more often than not, the factor of their trauma, loneliness, and failure.
There’s an implication of the difficulty of upward mobility, given that should Ricky be caught by the social worker, all will not be well. He’ll be tossed through the ringer and the rigmarole of another foster family, or another children’s house, or juvenile detention. And it makes sense, therefore, that part of Paula’s appeal as a comedic character is that she’s a moron. She doesn’t know what to do, despite her determination, and neither do the institutions at large.
But part of the joy of this film is how lively it is directly in the face of death. A mishmash of delightful genre tropes, including road trips, there’s an irreverently wise quality to Ricky and Hec’s dynamic. They bound through the woods — survivalists without the condescension — bonding without saccharine sentimentality, eaten up by the landscapes around them. Waititi pans 360 degrees in several scenes, as if to show that Ricky and Hec are at the will of the Bush. There’s something both edgier and more nuanced than reducing it to “grumpy old man and spritely young kid”.” For them, the adventure is both an escape and a reconciliation with death itself. In the best ways possible, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is like a live-action Up.
Kyle Turner (@tylekurner) is a freelance writer, editor and transcriber who has contributed to Esquire, MUBI, Playboy, Flavorwire, Brooklyn Magazine, The Film Stage, Film School Rejects, Under the Radar, and IndieWire’s /Bent. He is studying cinema at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. He is relieved to know that he is not a golem.