"Your biology is related to the biology of plants and animals; they too share the life energies – what we might term 'body wisdom,' in contrast to mental wisdom. When you move deeper in dream, when you move into the sphere of the permanent energies of your body, your mental wisdom is gradually extinguished, body wisdom (as it were) rises, and you experience the collective order of dream, where the imagery is identical to the imagery of myth. And since some of these images have not been allowed to play a role in your life, you come into relation with them in surprise." --Joseph Campbell
"It's not only my dreams. My belief is that all these dreams are yours as well...And that is what poetry or painting or literature or filmmaking is all about. It's as simple as that...this might be the inner chronicle of what we are." --Werner Herzog
Hushpuppy would understand instinctively what Campbell was talking about. Rockin' rough and tough with her Afro puff, she's an intrepid little girl who lives down along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, down in the bayou below the levee. Locals call it "the Bathtub." She has a keen sense of herself as a creature in the natural order: she tells us so in a voiceover. In America most of us live with a great deal of abstraction between us and nature, the physical world, wildness. Hushpuppy is in harmony with it. She puts her head to a pig's chest and we hear its heart beating. As portrayed by tiny Quvenzhane Wallis, she's my favorite hero of the year so far.
Her irascible daddy, Wink (Dwight Henry), lives around the way in a trailer balanced atop pilings above sea level. He spears whole chickens and chucks them on the grill that's jerry-rigged outside his window. He can go missing for days on end, then turn up wandering dazedly in a clearing in a hospital gown. He’s an alcoholic, and a rage-aholic. And he’s dying.
Her mother is missing. Maybe, Hushpuppy imagines, she lives in the lighthouse out on the horizon across the sea. Left to fend for herself, Hushpuppy opens up a tin and boils cat-food stew in a big pot.
Les Blank's documentaries about Cajun Country told of communities made up of the descendants of runaway slaves and pirates, and the Bathtub seems like it could be such a place. It’s a real community, rare in contemporary America. They live off the grid, by their own rules. The lifestyle is celebratory, joyous, but there's a dark side: drink is as much scourge as it is liberator. They are free, but it's the flip side of having nothing. Still, there's a communal ethos: when the day's haul of crab comes in, it's dumped out on the table and shared with great festive gusto.
From her teacher Hushpuppy learns about aurochs, giant hell-boars now extinct. When the news arrives that a storm of biblical proportions is heading for the Bathtub, she imagines the fearsome beasts thawing from an iceberg and thundering their way towards her across the continents. The people of the Bathtub stubbornly refuse to desert. They'll fight any outsider who tries to evacuate them. When the Bathtub floods, Hushpuppy and her daddy sail the seas, as the heroes of a fable should. He teaches her to fish with her hands.
These people have not been sentimentalized. Fiercely protective of Hushpuppy on the one hand, Wink is a difficult, thorny man, a force of nature. She has to learn to be strong enough to face this volatile, loud, irrational force. Nature can be dangerous.
This intersection of a levee, a hurricane, and poor people has caused some viewers to get hung up on this as a political parable. It's an environmental fable, if anything. But what director Benh Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar have actually given us an ecstatic sensory experience, and an emotional wrecking ball as well. It makes us see the world through Hushpuppy’s eyes so thoroughly that by the time we get to a clinic on the mainland, it's the clinic’s antiseptic walls, its right angles, that seem strange.
As for young Ms. Wallis's performance, she gives us much more than just a cute little firecracker. She's called upon to exhibit an almost preternatural sense of her place in the natural order, and as an actor she understands this on an unspoken level. By the end, she is a very, very small being who radiates something huge. Courage, for one thing. The life energies shoot through her, and through this film.
It’s just real elemental stuff, a film pitched at the level of myth and human history. Its images honor film's ongoing "inner chronicle of what we are," as Herzog would have it, or the "collective order of dream," as Campbell might. And almost alone amongst contemporary films, it gave me images with which I came into relation in surprise.
--August 2, 2012
Key to ratings:
***** (essential viewing)
*** (worth a look)