This vividly poetic film will take your breath away in unexpected ways. Part fairytale, part social commentary, it serves up such beauty, ghastliness and moments of real horror, interspersed with scenes of extraordinary warmth, love and hope.
Six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives in The Bathtub, a fictional, waterlogged area of Louisiana, where homes are ramshackle and families more so. The precariousness of living here is offset by the people’s passion for life and determination in looking out for each other. As a storm approaches, a child runs through the streets ringing a bell and shouting out warnings. Most up and leave, but a core few remain, including Hushpuppy and her father Wink (Dwight Henry).
As the tight-knit bayou community fights to survive the aftermath of the storm, including a declaration from the US Government (announced from a helicopter) that their homes are in a ‘mandatory evacuation area’, Hush Puppy’s imagination takes hold – presenting new threats in the form of vast prehistoric hogs looming from the swamp.
Throughout the film, director Benh Zeitlin maintains true to Hushpuppy’s worldview, so that when she returns with medicine for her daddy and finds him gone, her first thought is that he may have turned into a tree, and when the group end up in a clinical compound briefly, it resembles a fish-tank without water. Like all children, Hushpuppy is trying to make sense of the world best as she can, which involves her lifting small animals to her ear, and placing her ear against larger animals and ears, to try to understand their sounds – in one scene she even places a leaf to her ear – and then eats it. Part child – part swamp nymph.
Hushpuppy’s long-absent mother is another recurring theme. An old red sports vest takes on this role in Hushpuppy’s mind, telling Hushpuppy the things she needs to hear while she strikes fear into the viewers by lighting the stove with a flame-thrower (she does put on a football helmet first, so that’s ok).
The balance between Hushpuppy’s happiness and frequent unknowing peril is deftly depicted – I found myself desperate to protect this child, while being shown that to try to do so would take away everything she held dear.