October 23, 2012 -- Depicting a person's connection to the land he lives in is not easy to do, but this film does it better than any other film I can remember. The land is a low-lying bayou called “the bathtub”, probably in Louisiana near New Orleans. A young girl, Hushpuppy (played by Quvenzhané Wallis) lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry) in a couple of run-down shacks. Hushpuppy lives in one shack, her father in another one nearby. Wink apparently makes a marginal living hunting and fishing.
The story depicts the hardships faced by Wink, who apparently is suffering from leukemia as he and Hushpuppy weather a hurricane and high water which floods their homes. Although authorities force an evacuation of the area, the people, including Wink and Hushpuppy, stubbornly break free and return home. This story is not just about these people and their land. It is a story which goes back to the prehistoric past when beasts called Aurochs ruled the land. The Aurochs were frozen in the ice age, but global warming is bringing them back to life (in fantasy sequences). Global warming is also causing the water to rise in the Bathtub.
The residents of the Bathtub are being flooded while people on the other side of a big levee are protected from the rising waters. Wink vows to save the bathtub by blowing up the levee. Neighbors are afraid this act of destruction will arouse the powerful people who live on the other side of the levee and they will be forced to leave again. Hushpuppy, however, decides to take action, along with her father and others.
The trees in the bayou begin to die because of the salt water from the ocean that the storm brought in. Wink is also dying, a fact he tries to keep from his daughter, but Hushpuppy is stronger than he knows. She eventually has to face her fears, as well as the dreaded Aurochs. In the end, there is no doubt that Hushpuppy will prevail, whatever the challenges.
This film is an odd mixture of gritty reality and fantasy. Hushpuppy's journey from childhood is both real and fantastical. One part of her journey, which is probably imaginary, includes an eerie trip to a kind of brothel called the Elysian Fields (a final resting place for heroic souls) where she meets a woman who could be her mother. There is also the fantastic march of the onrushing Aurochs and Hushpuppy's confrontation with the giant beasts.
The film is not only a testament to the human spirit, but it depicts human folly as well. It depicts the wall (the levee) which separates rich from poor. The levee also separates the rich from the consequences of their irresponsibility (global warming and rising ocean levels). Pointedly, there is an oil refinery on the other side of the levee.
Although the story was inspired by Hurricane Katrina, a very similar story played out in real life recently when Hurricane Isaac flooded St. John the Baptist Parish in Louisiana which, like the Bathtub, was not protected by a levee. While the City of New Orleans was protected by its new, multi-billion system of levees this year, floodgates were opened along the Mississippi River upstream, flooding other areas. Rural areas were intentionally flooded to keep New Orleans and other urban areas from flooding. This movie is about the people who suffer the consequences of these kinds of decisions.
This film looks like it was filmed on a tight budget using hand-held video cameras, but it was actually shot on 16 millimeter film, according to what I've read about the film. The imagery in the film is striking, especially in the surrealistic fantasy scenes. Ben Richardson's cinematography gives the bayou country a muddy, wet, lush realism. Both Quvenzhané Wallis (only five years old when she got the role) and Dwight Henry (who runs a bakery and cafe in New Orleans) are acting novices, but they give wonderful performances anyway, as does the rest of the cast, including Gina Montana (who plays Hushpuppy's teacher and medicine woman). This film rates a B+.
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