In this series we look at scenes and moments where a film or TV show has revealed a great deal of character information in a short amount of screen time. In this instalment, we focus on Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) from the coming of age film HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE.
HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE
Taika Waititi (WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS) directed the film and also adapted the script from a book by Barry Crump.
Who is Ricky Baker?
When Bella (Rima Te Wiata) adopts troubled foster child Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), her husband Hector (Sam Neil), a classic gruff rugged outdoors man, is less than enthusiastic.
Ricky is a Tupac-loving kid from the city who struggles to adapt to life on a remote farm, despite Bella’s best efforts.
Through a difficult set of circumstances, he and Hec end up on the run from the authorities into the bush.
How is Ricky Baker’s character revealed by the action and dialogue?
Over the main titles, there are glimpses of Ricky Baker travelling in a police car through the countryside. For now, we only see details: half his face, his shoes stepping out when they arrive, the back of his jacket.
Ricky turns around and Bella excitedly runs out of a rural house to greet Paula (Rachel House), the child welfare woman accompanying him.
Bella hugs Ricky, but he doesn’t react. He checks his phone and wanders off while the adults talk, Paula explaining his background as a foster child turned delinquent:
Apparently he’s a real bad egg. We’re talking disobedience. Stealing. Spitting. Running away. Throwing rocks. Kicking stuff. Loitering. And graffiti.
Ricky emerges from the other side of the house and immediately gets back into the police car.
Paula tells him that no-one else wants him and that he knows what the alternative is. Bella is more positive and insists, “We’ll make it work.”
Ricky Baker emerges from the car but still pays little attention to the adults deciding his fate.
He notices Hector returning home with a pig on his back. Paula tells Bella to keep his rifle away from Ricky.
The police car leaves Ricky Baker in his new home.
What do we learn about Ricky Baker in these scenes?
As soon as Ricky steps out of the car, there’s an immediate visual clash between his urban clothes and the countryside around him.
His disinterested attitude also reflects this conflict. He checks his phone rather than paying attention to his surroundings.
A montage of Ricky’s various crimes, again connecting to him to an urban environment, accompanies Paula’s description of his troubled past.
There isn’t a need for specific backstory to explain how the adoption came to take place. Even without Paula’s dialogue, it’s clear from this (and the lack of phone signal) that isolating him this way is a punishment itself, a last resort.
It’s not even just renegades, but just underdogs and people that live on the margins, the ones who are just shoved off to the side. They’re the big heroes to me. I love people who fight against the system.
This exchange also establishes the comic tone. In this world, Paula describes Ricky as a troublemaker, the worst of the worst.
At the same time, the montage shows that his crimes are not actually that extreme. The juxtaposition reveals something about Ricky and Paula.
Ricky is not completely anti-social. He’s still redeemable.
Rather, Paula has exaggerated his crimes because she wants an excuse to give up on him.
It’s not simply Ricky being an orphan that has led to his current detached, uncaring state, but the dispassionate foster system.
Even the well-intentioned Bella cracks jokes about Ricky’s weight, layering in an additional motivation for Ricky to act out, a barrier that prevents from connecting to other people.
At a crucial moment in this scene, the perspective switches. The characters who are talking are now off-screen and the film instead focuses on Ricky.
Ricky notices Hector coming up the hill, pig on his back and carrying a rifle, before the others do. This choice draws the audience into Ricky’s point of view and his curiosity.
Who is this mysterious, gruff outdoors man who barely reacts to his wife adopting a child?
Although it might seem unlikely in this moment, this proves to be the key relationship of the film.
Why is this an example of brilliantly succinct screenwriting?
HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE begins as a fish-out-of-water story, but soon becomes a buddy comedy. Both genres thrive on clear lines of contrast, be they drawn between a protagonist and their environment or between two main characters.
This scene very efficiently introduces both dynamics. Ricky and Hec are polar opposites, creating great potential for dramatic and comedic tension.
Just as Ricky is closely identified with the city, Hec is associated with the countryside.
The way Ricky’s introductory scene is structured also allows the adults in the audience to be gradually brought into his perspective, to return to the feeling of the world seeming so much bigger than them.
Rather than simply being depressing however, that his life is out of his own control, it’s also a starting point for wonder as Ricky explores the new people and places around him.
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