The film deals with the things that happen to a young girl, "Hushpuppy" (Quvenzhané Wallis), and her father "Wink" (Dwight Henry), before, during, and after a major hurricane (not named in the film but understood to be Katrina) strikes the coastal Louisiana island where they live.
Wink is no kind of a parent to Hushpuppy--he's more like a bad big brother. Initially, he doesn't even let her sleep under the same roof with him. She has to keep herself and all the "girl stuff", including mementoes of her absent mother, in a separate shanty. Hushpuppy endures his genial neglect and the casual occasional supervision of their small community with a cheerful insouciance that gives the story the gloss of a childhood idyll (it has been compared to "Huckleberry Finn"). But, that doesn't disguise the fact that she's in real danger in most of the movie: danger of abandonment, danger of fire, danger of explosions, danger of flooding, of sepsis, of bad food, of being lost at sea. Even the supposedly joyous celebration scene made me uncomfortable since I would not give a child that age Roman Candles to play with--.
By the end of the movie, the remaining inhabitants of "The Bathtub", as the island is called, are shown leaving their ocean-destroyed home proudly, literally with banner flying (a reference to "The Spirit of '76"--). This ending didn't make me feel better. What's going to happen to Hushpuppy now? Experience and history tell me, probably not much good or that she is going to like.
Although it's a remarkable piece of film-making in a number of ways, I didn't find that the couple of magic-realism elements added much. in particular a dream-like sequence in which Hushpuppy encounters a possible mother-figure slowed the tempo way down and didn't fit well with the rest of the movie.
Verdict: very mixed. For me, the story of resolution and independence in adversity was overwhelmed by the observation of how desperately close to disaster things are at any given time. I don't know: if the same story were set in some fantasy world or other time, would I have been so put off? The fact that this is a real(ish) world, set at a real time which had so many very bad outcomes for so many real people just makes the tension level too high for me to enjoy.
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