The whole universe depends on everything fitting just right. If a piece get bust, even one tiny piece, the whole universe would get busted.
Some films don’t exactly fill me with desire to rush out and see them. This one- first-time director, amateur cast, a somewhat unlikely mix of social realism and fantasy – certainly didn’t and that’s why I’ve only now seen it, a year after it was released. I should have known better; this film made an enormous impact on release (winning at Cannes and Sundance, and being nominated for four Oscars) and after seeing it, I can see what the fuss was about. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty damn close and it’s actually better for the imperfections, born as they are of ambition. Peter Travers calls it ‘a game-changer that gets you excited about movies again’, and though I don’t know about the ‘game changer’ part, I absolutely agree that it would take a hard heart not to love this film.
The film tells the story of six-year old Hushpuppy who lives with her father Wink in the Bathtub, a small community separated from New Orleans by a levee. Her mother is gone – she floated away, Hushpuppy is told – and her father is both unwell and prone to drinking and anger. The community teacher tells the children about how the Bathtub is soon to be washed away and how the aurochs, prehistoric creatures, will be released from the ice caps. We follow Hushpuppy throughout the story and watch the development of her relationship with her father as well as the strength and vulnerability of her community; we see their friends die, but they have a ‘funeral the bathtub way; with no crying.’
This is such an a ambitious movie, amazingly so when we consider the director’s inexperience, the amateur cast, the tiny budget. It tells us the story of the New Orleans flood – more, of a way of life associated strongly with New Orleans. We see the poverty and associated problems – drunkenness, illness, broken families – and the strength and love in these communities. Characters like Miss Bathsheba, the teacher, exude roughness and warmth in equal measure, and they personify this beautifully shot and realised world. At one level, then, it’s a kind of social realism, and the low budget, non-professional actors and focus on the problems of working-class people put it firmly in the tradition of Neo Realism inherited from films like The Bicycle Thieves directors like Vittorio de Sica or even New Wave classics like Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. Perhaps it’s coincidence that among the final shots of both films are long, hard stares into the camera by the youthful protagonist, but the similarity in intent is clear; these children are tough, resilient, survivors.
At another level, it’s a coming-of-age film, and this is the aspect that’ll make you cry. Wink’s illness progresses throughout the film, and Hushpuppy has to come to terms with the mortality of her father, herself, and everything. There is an amazing central performance from Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy – only eight years old when the film was released (six when she started filming it) and yet she perfectly communicates the wrenching pain and anger and bewilderment that Hushpuppy feels at various times. She is an a mazing talent (and she has now appeared in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. That’s not a bad CV for someone who hasn’t left junior school yet.) Director Benh Zeitlin (himself only 29 when the film was made) recreates the child’s point of view in a number of ways – the warm palettes which clash with the cold tones of the holding centre Hushpuppy and her father are sent to; the handheld camera throughout which, while it seriously annoys some reviewers, seems to me a perfect way to capture a child’s slightly wonky view of the world; the beautifully lyrical voiceover. It’s very reminiscent of films like The Fall and even Pan’s Labyrinth in its use of the child’s point-of-view.
Finally, it’s a fantasy movie. It’s a real shock when we start to see ice caps melting and the aurochs emerge – not something you’d actually expect in a film set in New Orleans – and this is the part of the movie which made some reviewers qualify their praise for the film (James Berardinelli writes that, ‘The movie comes across as a collection of competing themes and ideas that collide more often than complement one another and never fully gel.’) However, I think it’s a wonderful, weird addition to an already powerful film. The aurochs, in their massive, snorting, physicality serve as the perfect binary opposite to the tiny Hushpuppy and their journey to the bathtub both adds (even more) narrative movement and shape to the film and, again, mirrors Hushpuppy’s own journey back home and, of course, her metaphorical journey to independence. The film, particularly the ending, has the weight of allegory about it and it reminded me of Life of Pi as another movie which resisted easy interpretation. What the aurochs represent is open to debate; but we feel they are significant and we want to understand them and in that ambiguity we both experience the same dilemma as Hushpuppy herself – she feels more than she can express – and we feel how the film has the fluidity and depth of lyric poetry.
It’s incredibly refreshing to see a low-budget movie succeed so much on the strength of creativity, daring and wonderful production and performances. It’s the best, most beautiful, film I’ve seen in an age, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.