The film is quite hard to describe. It's incredibly poetic in it's voice over's (which rival The Tree of Life), however it's dark, realistic (minus the aurochs) portrayal of the immediate future were key in it's very direct story line. Why it is so hard to explain to other people is beyond me, all the synopsis's I've read don't really fit the tone of the story, but while trying to explain it to people, it's just difficult to truly capture what the film is all about, but I think that adds to the experience, it just really is an incredible film.
In short, it is a story about a little girl who lives with her father in a poverty stricken neighborhood. Her father starts to become very sick, while at the same time the polar icecaps are melting, releasing giant mythical beasts from their frozen slumber. Her mother left her when she was a baby, and she has an imaginary connection to her, often calling out to her and pretending she is there. Along the way, her father tries to instill independence and self reliance into her, fearing he won't be there to take care of her for much longer.
That's all I'll give, the last half hour of the film is just an emotional journey, the end leaves you feeling genuinely empowered, it's truly life-affirming. However, everything is done in such a simple, realistic way, and even in the darkness of tragedy, the light that shines out of Hushpuppy and the residents in The Bathtub, it's just magical and the feeling stayed with me long after I left the theater.
The main reason the film is as magical as it is is because of this little girl right here. Quvenzhané Wallis explodes onto the screen and into your heart the very first second you see her. I believe that PERFORMANCES are what should be judged in films, whether you like or dislike the actor, or how much of the performance is natural instincts, or the director telling you what to do, in the end the finished product is what should be judged. Obviously this girl who is no older than 7 (I believe she was 6 during filming) is not going to understand a lot of the darkness in the film, she is going to need to be coached, but she took everything that was given to her. Her voice overs come across as a bit fractured, but it works really well for her character.
Most child performances are either too simple, or too adult in films, but Wallis combines them and makes it into an unforgettable, believable character. She is quite a simple child, but the hardships and trials she goes through in a short period of time help her grow. At the start of the film she is very loud and opinionated, but as the film goes on, Hushpuppy becomes almost mute, going long periods of time without talking because she is observing and soaking in everything around her. This is what makes or breaks a performance, the quiet scenes where the actors face can either say nothing, or speak novels. Wallis's adorable little face does the latter, whether it being fear and anger, or heartbreak, this is where Wallis truly shows she understands her character, you can read everything on Hushpuppy's face.
The relationship between Hushpuppy and her father Wink (played by fellow untrained actor Dwight Henry who delivers an incredibly strong performance that should be considered this year as well) are the scenes that make this film so magical. Their relationship is quite strained, there are VERY few scenes between them that are sentimental, it is mostly fighting and arguing, but there is such an uncompromising amount of love and caring in every scene because of Wallis and Henry's chemistry. Her father comes across as a man who is not fully able to express his feelings and emotions correctly, which rub off on his daughter, but they understand each other, and their bond is unshakable, when the worst happens, they are there for each other.
Wink tries to hide his failing health from his daughter, but she is too bright and sees how much he is hurting, something she points out to him. Right before the storm happens, Hushpuppy and Wink have an argument where she tells Wink she wished he would die and hits him on his chest which causes him to collapse, and Hushpuppy rushes to find help. When she returns with "medicine" he is nowhere to be found, eventually finding him staggering along the road telling people that there's no reason to leave.
The next few scenes are the storm and the aftermath. Those who stayed are forced to make the best of what is left, and the strong community try their best to thrive and wait til the water levels lower, eventually being found by the government and being forced to move into a homeless shelter.
The following scenes lead to Wink trying his best to separate himself from his daughter because he doesn't want to see her to see how sick he really is, but she refuses to leave his side because of her deep love for him. It's obvious that Hushpuppy understands what's going on, even if she can't vocalize it, she just wants to be with her dad.
The end of the film lead to Hushpuppy finding a mother figure, which just makes her realize how much she loves her father, and her staying by her father until the very end of the film. Once the auroch's finally come, there is an epic showdown where everyone runs for their life, but Hushpuppy refuses to, she stands her ground and shows her father that she is now a "man."
The last half hour of the film is just filled with so much power and emotions that it took me off guard a little. The rest of the film is wonderful, but the ending ties everything together and makes everything else in the movie more powerful. I won't spoil what happens, but in light of tragedy, there is hope, and Hushpuppy shows us that. Everything she learned throughout the film's events are put to the test, and she passes, and her father's pride in her strength is truly heartwarming.
The film is well written, well directed, has a BEAUTIFUL score, and has some of the most imaginary cinematography (bar The Tree of Life) I've ever seen. However, it is the little star that ties everything together, without her energy, her charisma, and her incredible instincts the film would not work on the level it does.
While it is not for everyone, there are a lot of people that were touched by the film on the level that I was, it truly is a one of a kind experience, and within time I think this film could rise on my favorite's list. So come awards season, will this film receive the level of success it's acclaim leads people to believe? I'm not so sure, I can hope, but the Academy rarely recognizes children, but if they do, little Quvenzhané Wallis is at the top of my list.