Which set of eyes would you like to use to witness the squalid world of six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis)? The ones that focus on the strangely gorgeous cinematography and poetically constructed sequences of outsized fantasy and power in the face of extreme childhood difficulty, that play associative connect-the-dots to all the other cinematic childhoods that came before, specifically from people like Terrence Malick, Harmony Korine and Francois Truffaut? Or would you like to refuse the magic, suck it up and confront the devastating truth about how and why these stubborn characters live where they live?
Backing up a bit: Hushpuppy's world is two semi-destroyed trailers on water-defying platforms in the Gulf of Louisiana, a place known as "The Bathtub" that's separated by a huge levee from anything resembling modern life. She shares her pair of off-the-grid hovels with an occasionally abusive, always drunk father (Dwight Henry). Mom's dead, or, rather, "swam away" according to Hushpuppy, most likely in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. They eat what they can find, cook it in dirty pots and, in all aspects of their daily routine, live in filth and chaos among a small community of like-minded alcoholics and their unlucky offspring. This suits Dad because he's a crazy and blotto all the time and it suits Hushpuppy because she's never known anything else. Then another big storm hits and it throws their already precarious existence into a tailspin of official evacuations, unwelcome health care, insulting baths, refused meals and other services that are perceived as punishments.
The formal aspects of the film are highly effective at distancing the audience from what reasonable people would rightly judge as subhuman living conditions and child neglect, allowing director Benh Zeitlin to focus instead on the bravery and precocious imagination of his heroine. In his constructed world, where extreme poverty is simultaneously beautiful and dreamlike, Hushpuppy is a warrior princess who'll survive and thrive no matter what happens (the ever-creeping burst blood vessels on Dad's skin let you know something bad is around the corner) and no matter where she lands, even if it's in the kitchen of a floating brothel with a cook/surrogate mother who fries up alligator and grits for the patrons and tells Hushpuppy to smile because "ain't nobody like no pity-party-havin'-ass woman."
That's fine for a fictional super-girl who can hold her own and do battle against imaginary giant wild boars (the clunky title metaphors made visually "real" by Zeitlin); it's fine as a parable of on-the-brink childhood. But blink twice and it becomes a horror movie, one where Dad fills his daughter's head full of lies about how strong she is, calling her "Boss" and "The Man" and "King of The Bathtub," one where life is the monster and all you can do is endure the tension as you pray for somebody to come rescue this child from the nightmare that surrounds her. Yes, it's a beautiful balancing act on Zeitlin's part and he wants you to walk that tightrope with him, but it's also a glimpse into hell on Earth. If you can manage not to look down, good for you. I couldn't.