A 6 year old girl, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives in functional squalor in a poor, bayou fishing community – The Bathtub – cut off by a levee in Louisiana. What passes for the comminity’s teacher tells her that one day, the ice caps will melt, the Bathtub will be swamped by water, and prehistoric beasts will roam the earth. As a storm comes, most of the inhabitants evacuate, except for Hushpuppy, her disturbed father, and some boozing stragglers and abandoned kids. They create a floating bar, a drunken, drifting haven, but their world is dying around them.
This is a mystical, beautiful picture, told primarily through the eyes of the girl, who speaks to her dead mother and imagines beasts marauding her world. The breakdown of her surroundngs after the flood, the fevers of her own imagination, and her introduction to civilization (they are forcibly evacuated) is gorgeous and moving and Wallis’s fierce maturity is captivating.
This is a real life fable (“a passionate and unruly explosion of Americana”, per A.O. Scott) with barely a semblance of a plot, so beware – it does meander. But it is rightly nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, as is Wallis for Best Actress. Her confident, self-possessed performance is one of the strongest child turns I’ve ever seen. The non professional actor Dwight Henry (he’s a New Orleans baker who read for the part during down time and reluctantly took it because he was starting a new business) is also noteworthy, giving a raw, jarring performance. Filmed on location, the film’s rendering of nature reminded me of Terence Malick, but unlike Malick, first- time director Benh Zeitlin connects with actors as well as his surroundings. I’ve never seen a film quite like it.