The film is set in “The Bathtub”, a makeshift community living on low level land in the bayou. The six year old girl Hushpuppy (Wallis) is the narrator and star of the film. She is prone to spouting deeply philosophical thoughts worthy of someone ten times her age. i.e. “I see that I am a little piece of a big, big universe, and that makes it right.”, “Everybody loses the thing that made them. It's even how it's supposed to be in nature. The brave men stay and watch it happen, they don't run.”, and “Strong animals know when your hearts are weak.”
She lives with her daddy, Wink (Henry), in separate ramshackle trailers in the middle of what passes for the woods in The Bathtub. She and a few other kids attend a makeshift school run by Miss Bathsheba (newcomer Gina Montana). She straddles the line between teaching them actual science (the ice age and the animals that got killed by it) and superstition regarding folk cures for ailments. Hushpuppy’s imagination is taken with her teacher’s tale of the ancient creatures and periodically during the film we see her imagination working as some of these beasts trapped in ice start to float towards The Bathtub, ice melting off of them as they approach. Yes, they are a metaphor.
One day Wink simply doesn’t show up to feed Hushpuppy. He ends up being gone for days. She tries to fend for herself, doing better than most six year olds, but ultimately she burns down her trailer. Just then Wink shows up. He had been taken to a hospital against his will and essentially escaped from it. He is even still wearing the hospital gown. It’s never exactly specified what Wink is suffering from.
A hurricane hits the bayou and most of the people in the area leave for safety. Wink refuses to, though, because he feels he should be self-sufficient no matter what (hence refusing treatment for an illness that is killing him.) In the aftermath Wink and Hushpuppy discover that some other residents of The Bathtub also stayed and managed to survive, but that pretty much everything has been destroyed. They all band together and live off fish and shrimp, but the salt water from the flooding is killing everything around them. Their solution is to blow up the levee above them to release fresh water, flooding thousands of people in order to save The Bathtub from being killed off. That was a bad move, not just morally, but also because it brought the attention of the government fully on them and they are ordered to evacuate. Will they do this, and what’s to become of Hushpuppy if Wink continues to refuse medical treatment?
Most everything I had heard about this film prior to seeing it had focused on the girl’s imagination and the fantastical creatures that were a part of it. When I saw the film I realized that I had mostly been misinformed. Those sequences make up a relatively small portion of the film. What fills most of the movie is the day to day life in The Bathtub.
I had one issue with this film that kept me from falling in love with it like so many critics have: it romanticizes poverty. It’s obviously coming from the perspective of two people (Zeitlin and Alibar) who have likely never been truly poor a day in their lives. I can’t claim to have been as poor as the characters in this film, but as a child I did know what it’s like to sometimes wonder where the next meal would come from and whether there would be money to keep the heat on in the winter.
In this film being dirt poor is freeing. You don’t have any responsibilities. Everyone is happy. Government leaves you alone. When you do need medical care you practically have to fight the doctors off to refuse it. Food is readily available either by fishing or by reaching into Wink’s magic cooler that seems to always have a whole supermarket chicken in it ready for cooking whenever it is needed.
These things do not make it a bad film, just a naïve and occasionally silly one. It’s still a film you should see for the two main characters in it. If it sounds interesting then I recommend you give it a try.
Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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