Already much acclaimed on the festival circuit, Benh Zeitlin's debut feature delivers some striking images of despair and dereliction.
Set in a hardscrabble Louisiana swampland known as "the Bathtub", it focuses on a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), who scampers through the jungle wilderness like a latter-day Mowgli.
Her mother long gone, her disturbed father, Wink (Dwight Henry), alternately abusive and affectionate, Hushpuppy has to learn survival more or less home alone, and with a hurricane on the way it's by no means certain there'll even be a home by the end.
Co-scripted from her play by Lucy Alibar and Zeitlin, the film aims for a somewhat Malickesque lyricism through the girl's wise voiceover (a bit too wise) and flourishes of surrealist oddity such as the ancient beasts that have returned from a prehistoric age (they look like gigantic warthogs).
The film's political edge is sharp: the backwoods folk of the Bathtub, cut off from mainstream America, do not welcome the paltry and belated efforts to "help" them post-flood, and while the name Katrina goes unmentioned the implications are obvious.
Zeitlin is hugely sympathetic to these marginal, broken-down lives, though he doesn't always help his cause: the music is oppressively insistent, the drama is a sponge to any sentimentality going, and Henry's performance as the father wins no prizes for subtlety. I wanted to like it, but didn't; its poetical effects seemed forced, and its fable-like atmosphere unconvincing.
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