This award-winner at Sundance is bold and compelling, and features an unforgettable performance by Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy, a six-year old girl who lives with her dying father, Wink, in the Bathtub, an isolated piece of swamp in the backwaters of the South. But the film’s highly unusual view of the origins of human society, and the role of government today, should arouse controversy.
Hushpuppy narrates the film, but not in the usual way. Her narration as well as all spoken dialogue are shown in subtitles, which also describe the non-verbal soundtrack (eg.,”the sound of the wind”), including musical notes to indicate the score. The subtitles are likely a reprint of the stage directions of the play from which the film was adapted. Her memories of real events are mixed with fantasies about her mother, who abandoned her, and phantasmagoric images of a primitive society dominated by a terrifying herd-beast, the Auroch. The effect suggests the stream of consciousness of Hushpuppy’s inner life.
The story opens shortly before Hurricane Katrina hits the Gulf, depicting Hushpuppy’s relationship with her father as he and the other residents resist government efforts to evacuate the area. But by the film’s end, Hushpuppy has become a de facto leader of the group, which returns to the Bathtub to resume a way of life based on willful isolation, communion with nature and a distrust of all external authority.
The dramatic power of the story is mostly found in the scenes between father and daughter, and Dwight Henry, as Wink, is impressive. A non-professional, like the rest of the cast, he is remarkably confident and truthful (save for a couple of Fred Sanford “I’m dyin’” spots). First-time feature director Benh Zeitlin deftly handles his inexperienced cast, and skillfully uses close-ups, which avoid the static feeling you often get in filmed plays.
Surprisingly, however, most reviewers avoid discussing the film’s theme, which involves the admirable qualities to be found in the group. They are loyal, generous, life-affirming, and, when forced to, able to accomplish things cooperatively. But they are also close-minded, disorganized, unreliable, and have absolutely no interest in basic hygiene. Yet the filmmakers seem to laud their resistance to modern values. It is as if there is a natural wisdom in this anti-authoritarianism that is superior to our own data-driven social mobility, a view that recalls the films of the ’60s. It seems to say that Hushpuppy and the others will survive in the Bathtub on their own terms, and they don’t need our help.
Come Oscar time, however, I expect there will be greater attention paid to the message of the film, and its disturbing implications. The industry is usually more comfortable with slick, feel-good travesties like The Help, and may just prefer to ignore the film, like countless other worthy but low-grossing prizewinners. And yet, I don’t think that will happen. Audiences will simply not be able to forget the face of a child whose defiant gaze came at them with the force of a hurricane.