Lushly imaginative filmmaking and strong performances more than make up for newcomer Benh Zeitlin's indulgent fourishes as a new writer-director. This fable-style movie from the American South is moody and engulfing, taking us into a world would never have imagined. And that it's anchored by a powerhouse performance from a 6-year-old actress makes it even more remarkable.
This is Quvenzhane Wallis, who plays Hushpuppy, daughter of the tenacious survivor Wink (Henry). They live in neighbouring trailers in the Bathtub, a tightly knit community in the Louisiana bayou that is completely submerged whenever there's a storm. But this latest flood is worse than usual, and as Wink looks for a solution to their waterlogged problems, Hushpuppy starts to realise that her daddy isn't well. So she decides to go find her long-lost mother, who left shortly after she was born. In her imaginative mind, the flood and Wink's illness are both linked to global warming, which is thawing out the polar ice and releasing prehistoric boar-like aurochs that are heading for the Bathtub.
The key element of the story is Hushpuppy's remarkable awareness that the world is a huge place full of interconnected life, and that she is only one small part of it. But she also knows that even a little girl like her can have an impact on her environment, so her quest for her mother takes on an apocalypse-averting tone. And Wallis is simply unstoppable in the role, capturing Hushpuppy's complex internal journey with a transparency that's breathtaking. Opposite her, Henry manages to keep up with her by internalising his own performance.
The film is shot in golden-hued tones that make the offbeat characters and squalid living conditions both realistic and oddly beautiful. Sometimes this gets a bit overwrought, as the symbolism and wrenching emotions reach almost cartoonish proportions. But this is a haunting and provocative story skilfully told. And Wallis is so magnetic at the centre that it's impossible not to be deeply moved by her odyssey. It's no wonder people started mentioning Oscar the moment the film premiered.
Run time: 93 mins
In Theaters: Thursday 5th July 2012
Box Office USA: $12.8M
Distributed by: Fox Searchlight
Production compaines: Cinereach, Court 13 Pictures, Journeyman Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 86%
Fresh: 156 Rotten: 26
IMDB: 7.3 / 10
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Producer: Michael Gottwald, Dan Janvey, Josh Penn
Screenwriter: Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin
Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy, Dwight Henry as Wink, Levy Easterly as Jean Battiste, Gina Montana as Miss Bathsheeba, Lowell Landes as Walrus, Pamela Harper as Little Jo, Amber Henry as LZA, Jonshel Alexander as Joy Strong, Nicholas Clark as Boy with Bell, Joseph Brown as Winston, Henry D. Coleman as Peter T, Kaliana Brower as T-Lou, Phillip Lawrence as Dr. Maloney, Hannah Holby as Open Arms Babysitter, Jimmy Lee Moore as Sgt. Major