Millions of years from now when kids go to school, they’ll know that once there was a girl called Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in the bathtub.
This is six year old heroine Hushpuppy’s (played by Quvenzhané Wallis in one of the most extraordinary performances I’ve ever seen by a child), reasoning as she draws caveman style illustrations on a cardboard box she’s hiding in from her father. It’s not that her daddy Wink (a sly turn by Dwight Henry) is abusive but he was missing for days on end, coming home wearing a hospital gown and bracelet (Hushpuppy wants to know why he’s in a dress) and he’s not pleased to see that in his absence his daughter has managed to set fire to her room. This is just the beginning of a series of disasters for them followed by the flooding, the environmental devastation that follows, and Wink’s ever declining health, but the family and friends defiantly states there’s no time for tears when there’s all this work to do.
Hushpuppy, her daddy, and indeed all their friends in the “bathtub,” the section of New Orleans past the levees, like what in popular parlance might be described as squalor and poverty but to their minds it’s the Garden of Eden. They’re surrounded by greenery and wildlife in what Wink calls the “prettiest place on earth,” and he derides the dry, industrial side of New Orleans for its ugliness from the family motorboat. They eat like kings as well, enjoying freshly caught shrimp and crab right off the shell. Wink slaughters his own chickens and barbecues them on a grill while warning his daughter of less exalted places in the dry territories where they only celebrate holidays once a year in contrast to the Bathtub’s ongoing festive spirit. And it’s spirit of fellowship as well. Everyone helps out everyone else like they’re kin; before going off on a dangerous mission, Wink informs his daughter, “And if anything happen to me, Walsh is daddy.” It’s no wonder that the prospect of being “rescued” and sent off to a shelter is looked on as akin to imprisonment. To Hushpuppy’s eyes the clean but sterile shelter, where she’s forced to braid her wild hair and wear ruffled dresses, is “like a fish tank without the water. Where people are plugged into the wall to die.”
Hushpuppy at age six, still sees fantasy and reality as one. To her mind, the ruin brought on by the hurricane includes the arrival of those fearsome prehistoric beasts known as the aurochs. Director Benh Zeitlin takes a light touch with this element of magical realism, though, preferring to concentrate on the state of enchantment Hushpuppy’s actual living circumstances provoke. In a land where gators can be used for food or dynamite wrapping, where little girls light up the swamp with sparklers, where you float past houses, where houses have pepper vines growing on the roofs, where a herbal medicine woman heals your wounds, where little girls can swim out to buoys, where the “girls” at a catfish shack are like maternal angels…well what’s a few Ice Age era beasts on top of all that? Zeitlin has given us one of the most truly magical and original films of the year; this is one wild journey you won’t regret taking.