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Endearing duo bring plenty of heart to captivating ‘Wilderpeople’

Julian Dennison (left) and Sam Neill star in "Hunt for the Wilderpeople." | THE ORCHARD

Life has a funny way of interfering with, well, life.

You know — those curveballs that derail the best-laid plans, for better or worse.

In the case of “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” the captivating new film from New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi (“Boy,” “What We Do in the Shadows”), it’s definitely for the better when a taciturn city ‘tween enters the world of a set-in-his-ways country-dwelling senior citizen. Their lives will forever change, no matter how much they think they don’t want them to.

The kid in question is pudgy and feisty Ricky Baker (the endearing Julian Dennison, in what’s sure to be his breakout performance), who’s spent most of his 13 years on earth moving from foster home to foster home, learning to be that tough little kid on the outside, while writing and reciting haikus to reveal his true inner feelings. We meet him as he’s being “delivered” to his final chance at a normal life, the farmhouse of his “aunt” Bella (Rima Te Wiata in wonderful turn) and her partner Hec, the aforementioned cantankerous sixtysomething (Sam Neill in a marvelous performance). The couple lives a bucolic farm life, with only the occasional slaughtering of wild boars with knives and their bare hands, and taking in rescue dogs and, in the case of Ricky, a rescue child. There is much love on the farm, thanks mostly to Bella, and life is good until her sudden passing sets in motion the rest of this darkly humorous film, based on the best-selling novel “Wild Pork and Watercress,” by the late Barry Crump.

When Hec insists on returning Ricky to the system, which has so tragically failed him, the young boy decides to run off into the New Zealand bush (Lachlan Milne’s cinematography is breathtaking), where of course he is quickly lost, and of course he is found by the expert outdoorsman Hec. When an injury forces them to remain at large instead of returning to the farm, the authorities suspect the worst and a national manhunt ensues. Heading deeper and deeper into the lush countryside, the street-smart Ricky teaches Hec the finer points of absconding with supplies from unsuspecting hikers and campers; Hec teaches Ricky how to survive in the wild by hunting, foraging and eating giant slugs if necessary. Ricky must have his toilet paper; Hec must have his freedom.

Meanwhile, back at the farm, a series of misunderstandings and conclusion-jumping leads authorities to believe Hec has absconded with the child and god-knows-what is going on out there in the wild. Soon there are hunters, SWAT teams, helicopters, squadrons of police and one very determined (and hilarious) child services officer Paula (Rachel House) hot on the trail of the buddies (for by now the two have come to realize they really do care about one another). Ricky and Hec soon become social media darlings, and final 10 minutes of the film seem a bit contrived as the climactic car chase (reminiscent of “Thelma and Louise”) comes to its resolution.

But that’s a small price to pay in an otherwise charming film that will touch your heart on so many levels. The friendship that develops between Ricky and Hec is priceless; they are each other’s salvation, whether they realize it or not. The film’s title is a reference to wildebeests, those massive, horned, antelope-like creatures known for migrating thousands of miles across African plains to reach grazing grounds. Ricky likens his trek to theirs — not quite as extensive, but every bit as life-changing.

“Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is all about life-changing moments and the people who are the catalysts. It’s about learning from those around you, regardless of age or circumstance. It’s about learning to trust in yourself and the meaningful people around you. It’s about family and realizing the only “normal” family is one filled with love and understanding and discipline and strength of character, and sometimes tragedy. As the happy-go-lucky Bella tells the newly arrived Ricky early on, “I’m so happy we found you; sorry it took so long.” Home is where the heart is.

★★★1⁄2

The Orchard presents a film written and directed by Taika Waititi, based on the novel “Wild Pork and Watercress” by Barry Crump. Running time: 101 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for thematic elements including violent content, and for some language). Opens Friday at local theaters.