OK, I loved this movie about the little girl growing up in “The Bathtub”, a fictional island off the southern coast of Louisiana which is hit by a storm that puts it underwater. Moonrise Kingdom this ain’t. The Flower liked it, but didn’t really get it. The Boy didn’t like it at first, but after we talked about it for a while, he sort of allowed that he had approached it the wrong way. (When The Boy and I disagree, it doesn’t usually result in either of us changing our opinion in a broad sweep, but sometimes it happens.)
If there’s a secret to this critic’s darling, it’s that it’s an apocalyptic thriller. This movie is about the end of the world, as seen through the eyes of Hushpuppy, a 5/6-year-old girl who lives in her own little trailer in the swamp not far from her dad’s complex of corrugated metal and wreckage. Her mom makes fleeting appearances in memories and dreams, as a mythical figure of beauty and mystery, who was so overwhelmed by Hushpuppy when she was born that she simply sailed off.
The Bathtub is as ramshackle as the Hushpuppy’s dwelling, but also cohesive, as the inhabitants share a collective ethic: They are free, they survive off the land, and they take care of their own. And a great many of them stay in the face of a large storm (inspired by Hurricane Gustav)—one which puts the island under water.
Worse than the end of the world, Hushpuppy’s father is obviously gravely ill. At one point, she punches him in anger and he appears to fall down dead. (He gets better.)
Oh, and a herd of rampaging prehistoric man-eating cattle called aurochs have been released due to melting ice sheets in the arctic (antarctic?) and they’re headed right for us!
If you think of this as an adult you’ll probably miss the point; this is about how a little girl sees the world, and the importance of her home, her parents and her fears. Hushpuppy is an impressive little girl, and her relationship with her father is complicated and touching. He’s hard on her, abusive, at least how we would describe it today, but primarily because he knows he’s in trouble and he won’t be around forever. She has to be able to survive without him.
When you see how the movie is told from Hushpuppy’s point-of-view, you see a crystal clear picture of the struggle between cause-and-effect the child’s mind has to overcome. (Somewhat reminiscent of Ray Bradbury’s “The Miracles of Jamie”.) Huhspuppy thinks she’s struck her father dead, she talks to a light on the water as her mother—and even goes to look for it—and she experiences a rescue team and clean, institutional shelter as a terrible prison.
Which it is, really. I actually heard some old ladies clucking about the horrible destitution of The Bathtub and how its residents couldn’t bear to face anything else so they’d do anything to get back there. I was watching a free community happily living how it wanted to live away from the “social safety net"—and not coincidentally, a community that was actually very well prepared for real catastrophe.
As I said, I loved it. It’s not a child’s movie, but it reminds of both Hayao Miyazaki and James and the Giant Peach. The two leads, (New Orleans Bakery Owner) Dwight Henry and especially young Quvenzhané Wallis are compelling and well-drawn characters. Young Wallis could almost be accused of carrying the film on her tiny shoulders but writer/director/composer Benh Zeitlin built the machine that she powered with her performance.
This is the kind of movie that delivers the things we go to the movies for: interesting characters in different lands living unusual lives.