Ricky, a fat, gangsta-obsessed Māori city kid who has been through a succession of foster placements, is sent to live on a remote farm with new foster parent "Aunty Bella" and her grouchy, withdrawn husband Hec. After a shaky start, he finds a home, until Bella dies suddenly and Ricky decides to hide out in the bush rather than be taken back into the indifferent embrace of Child Services. Hec goes to fetch him out, and a string of accidents and misunderstandings results in the two of them going on the run from a manhunt convinced that Hec has abducted Ricky.
This film provides examples of:
- Berserk Button:
- Never call Hec a pervert, as one hunter finds out the hard way.
- Hec initially fractures his leg while charging at Ricky for making fun of how he can't read.
- Bittersweet Ending: Hec goes to jail and Ricky is placed with a new family (though one who treats him well). Later subverted when Hec and Ricky are reunited and go off in the bush together to look for the huia they saw earlier in the movie.
- Chase Scene: The film climaxes with an enormous vehicle chase involving Ricky, Hec, a group of hunters, the police, and the army.
- Comically Missing the Point: After reading a poster which describes official fears that Hec, described as a "a Caucasian male in his 60s," may have abducted and harmed Ricky, Ricky says indignantly that they obviously don't know anything about Hec — he's not Asian.
- Conspiracy Theorist: Sam, who's been living off the grid for 15 years and believes in the importance of wearing a colander on your head to block the mind control rays.
- Cowboy Cop: Ricky's case worker has pretty much convinced herself that she's the protagonist of an action film and approves excessive force against Hec and Ricky. This is especially egregious because she's not even a cop, but a social worker who should be advocating for her charge's well-being. Called out at the end (see Reading Your Rights below).
- Creator Cameo: Writer-director Taika Waititi has a cameo as the spacey priest who officiates at Bella's funeral.
- Crush Filter: When Ricky first meets Kahu, there's a shot of her from his point of view in which she's backlit, moving in glamorous slow motion, and her hair is blowing in a Hot Wind. The second time they meet, it's lampshaded by happening at the same time as a TV in the background is showing an advertisement using the same technique.
- Department of Child Disservices: It's suggested that Child Services in general isn't malicious but doesn't know how to handle kids like Ricky, who get shuffled from placement to placement until something happens to them. Ricky's case worker in particular is a cynic who spouts aspirational catchphrases but thinks the worst of everybody and exerts a minimal amount of actual care and attention in her work. There's also the running joke about how Ricky was taught to express his feelings through poetry — by someone whose notion of poetry begins and ends with haiku.
- Driven to Suicide: It's heavily implied that Amber, a girl Ricky knew from foster care, was molested by her foster father and either killed herself or died of a drug overdose.
- Dropped a Bridge on Him: Early in the movie, Ricky hears Hec wailing. He follows the sound to find Bella collapsed by the washing line, dead.
- Due to the Dead: Hec has few sentimental feelings about Bella's ashes, but Ricky takes them with him into the bush, and they end up spreading the ashes into a river on the mountain, echoing an earlier comment she made about where her soul will go when she dies. Hec is amused to discover that Bella had been traveling with them all this time.
- Face Palm: Hec buries his face in his hands after first seeing a wanted poster for Ricky and himself.
- Faking the Dead: Before lighting out for the bush, Ricky attempts to fake his death by making an effigy dressed in some of his clothes and setting fire to it. It doesn't fool anybody, and is one of the things that makes the authorities (who don't know who made the effigy or set fire to it) question Hec's intentions. Psycho Sam also suggests that they fake their deaths when the authorities are closing in on them.
- Fire-Forged Friends: Ricky and Hec start out hating each other, but become best friends in the process of struggling to survive in the bush together.
- Honorary Uncle: Bella invites Ricky to call her "Aunty." Hec resists being called "Uncle" until the final scene.
- Inspector Javert: All of the cops and volunteers chasing Hec and Ricky are convinced that Hec is a dangerous pervert who has kidnapped Ricky, thanks to some unfortunate misunderstandings and jumping to conclusions.
- Involuntary Group Split: Ricky and Hec are briefly separated after police rescue the ill ranger, but Ricky remembers Hec's navigation advice and manages to find his way back to him all on his own.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold:
- Bella mocks Ricky's weight and eating habits right after meeting him, but genuinely cares about him, and Hec remarks that she loved bringing in "strays" and making them feel at home.
- Hec himself is rough around the edges and generally unsympathetic to others, but does care about Ricky deep down and gruffly tells him to make sure he comes back safe after Ricky leaves to find help for the ranger.
- Law of Inverse Fertility: Discussed. After Hec says that he and Bella were never able to have children of their own due to his infertility, Ricky muses about how unfair it is that some people can have kids and others can't, as his own mother abandoned him.
- Lonely Funeral: After Bella dies, there are only seven mourners at the church service, including Hec and Ricky.
- Meaningful Echo: When Ricky asks Hec how he's so good at finding food in the bush, Hec replies that he's just got the knack. Much later, when Ricky hotwires the ute for the climactic chase scene, Hec asks how he did it and Ricky replies that he's got the knack.
- Meat-O-Vision: When Ricky is lost in the bush after running away, he starts hallucinating that his dog Tupac is a magnificent pavlova. When Hec catches up to him, he appears as a talking hamburger for a moment before Ricky realizes who he is.
- Mercy Kill: Hec takes it upon himself to shoot Zag in the head after the dog is mortally wounded fighting a wild boar.
- Mood Whiplash: Bella's sudden and harsh death is immediately juxtaposed by one of the funniest scenes in the movie, where Taika Waititi makes his cameo as the priest at her funeral, rhapsodizing about how "He's tricky like that, Jesus".
- Never Learned to Read: About halfway through the film, Ricky realizes that Hec is illiterate, and isn't just being difficult when he makes Ricky read out letters and wanted posters and things. At the end of the film, Hec is shown to have started learning how, and is reading a novel to himself (out loud, with some difficulty) in the final scene.
- Newscaster Cameo: TVNZ's Breakfast and hosts Nadine Chalmers-Ross and Sam Wallace make a cameo talking with Paula the social worker about the alleged kidnapping. Radio New Zealand reporters Mihingarangi Forbes and John Campbell cameo as the on-scene reporters — the latter even manages to get in his trademark: "Marvellous!"
- Nobody Poops: Averted with Ricky, who has to do it in the bush. He gets annoyed when Hec insists that he bury it and use leaves as toilet paper.
- Odd Couple: Ricky is a motor-mouthed urban teenager who reads a lot for escapism and valorizes the "gangsta" lifestyle; Hec is a laconic bushman who can't read and has seen enough of violence and prison to know that neither are as glamorous as Ricky thinks. They don't get on at all to begin with, but grow closer together when circumstances force them to depend on each other.
- Perpetual Smiler: Even after just killing a wild boar with a knife, Bella is all smiles.
- Poke the Poodle: Ricky's case worker gives a long list of misdemeanors he's committed, including but not limited to shoplifting, spitting, vandalism, and graffiti, which she gives as evidence that he's a menace to society.
- Price on Their Head: As the manhunt drags on, a reward of $10,000 is offered for anyone who brings Ricky and Hec in. A dimwitted police spokesman automatically adds "dead or alive", then has to hurriedly clarify that they would really prefer "alive." Ricky's reaction to finding out is to suggest they hold out until it goes up to $20,000.
- Reading Your Rights: Played with. When the police catch up with Ricky and Hec, the case worker starts shouting at Hec that anything he says will be used against him in court, until a policeman calms her down and points out that (a) Miranda Rights is an American thing, and the police in New Zealand do it differently,note and (b) she's not police anyway.
- Scenery Porn: The mountain scenery is captured beautifully, something Hec lampshades.Hec: Pretty majestical, aint it?
- Ricky names his dog Tupac after one of his heroes.
- When Ricky and Hec hide among some tree roots as the police searchers pass overhead, Ricky mouths and pantomimes something to Hec, who doesn't understand. Once the danger is past, Ricky explains that he was saying it was just like The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, by which he means the part where the Hobbits hide from a Ringwraith in an identical manner.
- Ricky's argument with his case worker involves disagreeing over which of them is The Terminator and which of them is Sarah Connor.
- "Crumpy" the Toyota Hilux ute is a shout-out to story author Barry Crump and his role in the 1980s "Crumpy and Scotty" Toyota Hilux adverts in New Zealand.
- The climax scene where Ricky crashes the Hilux and the duo finally surrender to the authorities is filmed in the Horopito Motors car wrecker's yard, the setting of the 1981 film Smash Palace which also involves a man and child going bush to avoid authorities.
- The sequence of Ricky and Hec journeying through the snowy bush, tailed by Social Services and the police, as Leonard Cohen's "The Partisan" plays is potentially a reference to the visually similar final scene of the celebrated Soviet film Come and See, which follows a Belorussian peasant boy who joins the Partisan resistance during World War II.
- Tanks, but No Tanks: Weird example. When the climactic chase scene strays into an army base (probably Waiouru Military Camp), the New Zealand army soldiers are shown forming a blockade with their NZLAV armoured vehicles. Meanwhile, Paula is shown trying to race down Ricky and Hec on a Polish-made OT-64 SKOT — which was never in service in New Zealand.
- Teen Pregnancy: Ricky is the result of one, leaving his mother to abandon him. He blames himself for his mother not wanting him, but Hec points out that she must have been overwhelmed by the idea of motherhood due to her young age.
- That Came Out Wrong: During Ricky and Hec's first attempt to emerge from the wilderness, the hunters who find them ask Ricky if he's all right, and he gives a disjointed answer about Hec making him do things he didn't enjoy (meaning things like fetching firewood and using leaves as toilet paper) and forcing him to play with himself because Hec wasn't in the mood to "play with him". It does absolutely nothing to reassure the searchers of Hec's innocence.
- Tinfoil Hat: Sam gives Ricky and Hec colanders to wear on their heads so the government can't read their minds.Ricky: (to Hec) Why do you reckon he calls himself "Psycho Sam?"
Sam: Here you go. Put these on, to stop the government from tracking you.
Ricky: Never mind.
- Title Drop: Ricky recalls reading about wildebeest traveling hundreds of miles in search of better living conditions, and says that that's what they're doing, except they're wilderpeople instead of wildebeests.
- Took a Level in Badass: Ricky starts off bumbling and inept, especially in nature, but grows to be quite competent and resourceful in the bush.
- Took a Level in Kindness: Hec starts off gruff and distant toward Ricky, but eventually grows closer with him and becomes more outward of his protectiveness.
- "Wanted!" Poster: The first hint Ricky and Hec have of what's been going on while they were out bush is a poster with pictures and descriptions of both of them, outlining why the authorities are concerned for Ricky's safety, and asking for information about their whereabouts.
- Wrong Genre Savvy: Ricky tries to use music and movies about the thug life as a role model, while his case worker tries to act like a Cowboy Cop from an action movie.
We ate, we ran, and read books
And it was the best