Benh Zeitlin's first full feature is brimming with life. It's there in the squirm of a pot of fish, in the buzz of a town parade and in the spirit of six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis). The throb of a heartbeat rings throughout the film and it helps give the impression that this vision of life in a bayou community is itself a living, breathing thing.
Despite the carefree existence enjoyed by the characters, life in 'The Bathtub' is hard. The inhabitants are not only living outside the rules of mainstream American society (upside: more holidays than any other US territory), they are also living on the wrong side of the levy.
It is no exaggeration when they talk about how the next big storm could flood the area and wash their world away. That constant threat hangs heavy even as they ignore calls to evacuate and continue their simple, rural lives.
The cast of unknowns does an amazing job of bringing both the community and this story alive. They are ably led by the feisty young Wallis, who says more with one defiant look than many older actresses manage in an entire film. She has to face both her hot-tempered father's fading health and the thought that an imbalance in nature caused by her actions has unleashed ancient monsters known as aurochs.
Despite the alcoholic abuse, the rising waters and the need to care for herself at such an early age, she tackles it all with a sense of joy. "No time to sit around crying like a bunch of pussies," she says matter of factly about a major crisis.
Cinematographer Ben Richardson's handheld camerawork only adds to the drama. Mixed in with that verite-style filming are dizzying, dreamlike sequences that makes the audience question whether what they are seeing is really happening.
The result is an amazing debut for Zeitlin and his amateur cast.