(Benh Zeitlin, 2012)
There are things here to like. Young Quevenshane Wallis is magnetic and likeable as our narrator-heroine, Hush Puppy, and the majority of the others in the non-professional cast are fresh and believable in this world. Zeitlin's camera picks out a few stunning images, mainly of the Louisiana coast in all its astonishing, often desolate beauty. Some of the production design of the ramshackle structures in "the Bathtub", where Hush Puppy lives with her ailing, cranky father Link, is imaginatively, funkily visualised. And there is an unmistakeable, and powerful - if slightly cheap - pathos to that father-daughter relationship that carries the film through its more annoying later stretches.
And yet. This post-Katrina fantasy of a lovingly eccentric (fictional) community felt entirely fake to me, a piece of designer tourism with the aesthetics of a Levis advert, a contrived narrative and characters so cutesily eccentric they were at best silly, and at worst infuriating. This village lies on the wet side of a Louisiana levee, and when a great, Katrina-esque storm comes and the waters rise, the few remaining residents band together for survival.
This is all seen through Hush Puppy's eyes and overlaid with her naive, poetic, utterly overwritten musings about life and nature and meaning. They play like a bad attempt at Terrence Malick, and are compounded by Zeitlin's decision to depict the prehistoric Aurochs imagined (or are they..?) by Hush Puppy, thawed out by the melting of the ice caps and on the loose in the flooded Bathtub.
On top of that is a strangely bombastic, euphoric, awfully familiar indie-sounding score by Zeitlin and Dan Romer. The story ricochets across tones and registers - from seemingly realist drama to coming of age story to epic adventure - but never loses its essential tweeness, which becomes especially problematic when it attempts to address the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in its portrayal of the Bathtub family forcibly evacuated and blandified by a government who try to tame our heroine by putting her in a dress. This is a film which superficially seems joyous and simple, yet actually feels cynical and a touch laboured in its motives and stylistic tropes. It should be charming, but instead its charmless.