I don't usually review movies on my blog, but here's a second in a row. I think if I'd seen a more balanced set of views on this movie before I saw it, I'd not bother to write this (then again, I probably would not have bothered to see the film.) So first, let me get some things out of the way. The cinematography of the film was indeed spectacular, as was the acting of the all-novice cast, especially and particularly the performance of Quvenzhané Wallis, whose 6-year old capacity was simply amazing. I do hope that this film is the beginning of a long and fruitful career for her, if that's what she wants to do with her life. If that was all that I was going to judge the movie on, it definitely deserves all of the accolades and awards it has gotten. Perhaps that is what most people judge the movie on.
Spoiler Alert: If you haven't seen the film, and plan to, you might not want to read any further.
But the core story of the movie is deeply flawed. If you strip away the cinematography, magical realism, and amazing acting, what's left is a grim, grimy, sad, traumatic catastrophe of a childhood, twisted by the filmmaker into somehow a noble experience. It was like watching child abuse happen in real time. Hushpuppy is neglected, physically abused, bullied, and given alcohol. Oh, what fun! Obviously, her resilience and capacity given her experience is extraordinary, but should that be the point of the film? You watch lives shaped by deep injustice, and the feeling that is foisted on you is one of "yes, she's a plucky kid, a noble survivor of a terrible situation, and those plucky people choose their fate," rather than what you should really feel, which is "why on earth in this country of extraordinary wealth do we allow people live in situations like that?"
Yes, there are real choices made by the characters in this film, but they aren't choices that they should have to make--they are the choices dealt to them by an injust society. Yes, they chose to stay in their incredibly vulnerable housing during a hurricane (theoretically Katrina, or something a lot like it,) and they choose to leave the evacuation center to go back home. But were those really choices, or just being impoverished and in danger at home is better than being impoverished and in danger among strangers?
The filmmaker allows you to walk out of the film feeling OK about the whole thing, because a charming, precocious 6-year old stared down some big, nasty beasties (aurocs) with horns. You get to walk out of the film feeling OK about the whole thing because that plucky community decided to make their own way, rather than depend upon the outside help that is portrayed as sterile, impersonal, other (not that it isn't, but I think you're getting my drift.) You get to walk out of the film feeling OK, and appreciate this "allegory of marginal people’s resilience". Duh. Of course marginal people are resilient. If they weren't resilient they would be dead! Why is it that we seem to need to keep seeing this over and over again?
And speaking of that plucky community, it is a bit strange to me, frankly, that it is portrayed as such an interracial community. It's hard to buy, and it feels a little suspicious to me--as if the director realized that a film about a community that was truly representative of what "The Bathtub" would be (i.e. all black) would somehow be open to more criticism than one portrayed the way it was.
One review said: "As a piece of filmmaking, it remains so satisfyingly bizarre, it makes its detractors seem imaginatively stunted while leaving even its admirers guessing." Count me imaginatively stunted.