Starring: Quvenzhane Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly and Lowell Landes
Distributor: Icon Films
Runtime: 93 mins. Reviewed in Sep 2012
This extraordinary film is based on a one-act play by Lucy Alibar, titled “Juicy and Delicious”. Alibar wrote the script for the film with its director, Benh Zeitlin. The film won the Camera d’Or award at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, and the Grand Jury Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. It was made on a low budget by a group in New Orleans, where Hurricane Katrina struck, and is faintly reminiscent of the classic tale, “Where the Wild Things Are”.
A fearless six-year old girl called Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) lives with her alcoholic father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in a fictitious bayou community on an island surrounded by rising waters in Louisiana, US. They dwell in a run-down bus in the Bathtub, which is a swampy piece of junk-yard territory seperated by a levee from the world of industry and consumerism, which is “ugly, over there”.
Wink teaches Hushpuppy survival skills, in case he is no long around to protect her. A terrible storm, reminiscent of Katrina, hits the community, and Wink falls ill. Hushpuppy imagines vividly that these terrible events are unleashing ancient beasts, called aurochs, which, her teacher tells her, emerge from melting ice-caps. With the waters rising, her father’s health fading, and the fierce beasts advancing, Hushpuppy calls out to her mother, who, long ago, “swum away”.
This is a film unlike most films people will ever see. It combines poetry and magic in its scenes, and injects dream-like elements into its narrative. Scenes of aggressive beasts, and a joyous community merge together, and the story that is told is rich in both realism and fantasy. The images of marauding pre-historic animals tell us metaphorically that the film is about a vulnerable and disadvantaged community, living in the shadow of ecological disaster.
Despite the fact that Wink deserts Hushpuppy from time to time, the relationship between them is a loving one, and the film turns into an extraordinary act of devotion of a child to her dying father. The story of the love between them is developed by the film’s Director (Benh Zeitlin) with great sensitivity and warmth. Those trapped by the flood behind the levee react vigorously to the negative influences of external agencies trying to save them. Hushpuppy represents extreme individualism. She is a child born to be free and to express herself, and her charismatic presence on the screen is nothing short of magical. The world around her is shown to us through her eyes. She is a tiny warrior full of optimism, inner strength, and grim determination, and it is her stare that turns the mean creatures back.
There is a stark contrast in the social character of the community that the film presents. On the one hand, we see a multicultural group of people who are indifferent to the pursuit of wealth and inclusion. On the other hand, we see a community that has created for itself a world full of happy people, who survive the meddling intentions of others and hold fast to their way of living. The film reveals this contrast by exposing us to the dark side of South American culture. Wink is a flawed parent, trying to control a very wilful child, and life around him is presented harshly. Poverty, alcoholism, and squalor are everywhere, and we are invited to see and experience them, in order to understand the spirit of togetherness and the expression of positive human feelings that a disadvantaged community can engender.
In Blues-style, the musical sound-track captures perfectly the movie’s character. It is hard not to be extremely moved by Fats Waller’s haunting rendition of “(It will have to do) Until the Real Thing Comes Along”.
This unusual film is emotionally very powerful, and it communicates movingly, and against all expectation, inspirational hope for the future. It is a film not to be missed.
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