Director Behn Zeitlin’s kaleidoscopic first feature will be remembered above all for the character of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), his perfectly feral rendition of a motherless girl born into the parallel universe that is the Louisiana Delta. She is that place’s Ishmael, the talisman and narrator of dimension outside time. “There once was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her Daddy in the bathtub.”
The “Bathtub” is a poor and alcohol-fueled island of the Bayou; her Daddy, Wink (Dwight Henry), a beer-guzzling, often brutish subsistence farmer who between bouts of rage teaches her to respect life and cherish survival. In this whorl of a world, a child’s cross between Mars and Paradise, Hushpuppy learns to inspect and respect all living things, “the buffet of the universe,” as her teacher calls it, a damp and squirming array of insects, fish and fowl, creatures that for her “be talkin’ in code.” It is the teacher who tells her that one day the waters will rise and consume humankind, freeing once-frozen boar-like creatures to roam a vision of the afterworld.
This loose presaging foretells a kind of Hurricane Katrina-cum-global warming apocalypse to which Hushuppy and her worldview is made witness. So begins a story of survival, loyalty and absolute resistance to the modern (read adult) world. When her backwater group is reluctantly evacuated to a relief shelter (“… the brave don’t run from their home…”), she’s amazed and disdainful of neon-powered life, which to her lacks all natural sense: “When an animal gets sick,” she says while watching hospital patients, “they plug it into a wall.” It is that plug-in world she can’t fathom, nor wants to, having emerged from a simpler but magical realm. Fable-like, she turns into her now ailing father’s keeper, as well as the seeker out of a vaguely remembered mother. She’s evolves into something of Louisiana Delta trooper, a little girl whose strength of will is stronger and more persuasive than a thousand Disney-styled animated creations specifically intended to “empower” preteen girls.
So much about Zeitlin’s vision is charming and unique, but at its core is a story about a six-year-old who won’t abandon her father and refuses to see the world in any other terms than the ones she’s been brought up into, speaking to parental power. Seeing a surreal film such as this one, with it’s emphasis on life’s immense magic balanced against its equally majestic vulnerability, metaphysical adventures such as Terrence Malik’s “Tree of Life” seem needlessly pretentious.
It’s worth pointing out that Zeitlin has long focused on helping children make films, since here he’s managed to capture an elementary view of life’s whys and wherefores that only children are entirely sure about, until maturity and adulthood strip them of their visions of cave art.