The film opens on Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a young girl, going up to different animals and putting her ear up to their chests to hear their heartbeats. She states that all living things have a heartbeat, and they all speak to one another in a language she cannot understand, though she believes the animals are just saying they’re hungry or they have to poop. Her dad, Wink (Dwight Henry), rings a bell and announces that it’s feeding time. Hushpuppy grabs some chicken from her dad and takes a bite of it, then she feeds it to their animals (a boar, a dog, and some other animals). The next scene shows Hushpuppy and her dad on a makeshift boat (it’s the back of a truck where they use the leftover parts of the engine to make it a sort of motorboat). They look at the factories in the distance that are behind a levee. Hushpuppy, her father, and many other people live in the Bathtub, a place beyond the levee and separated from the rest of society. Wink thinks the factories are ugly and Hushpuppy states how the Bathtub has more fun than anywhere else because they have more holidays. The next scenes show one of these holidays where people are playing various instruments and screaming in raucous celebration. Hushpuppy and others set off fireworks in celebration. Hushpuppy states that one day, there’s going to be a storm and the Bathtub will be all gone. However, that doesn’t matter since Hushpuppy is always going to be together with her father.
Next, Miss Bathsheeba (Gina Montana) is shown lecturing several children, including Hushpuppy, about how all living things are meat. She tells the children that even they too are meat. She then points to a tattoo on her thigh that depicts cavemen and beasts called Aurochs. The Aurochs used to be beasts that would be ruthless and eat humans. However, Hushpuppy explains that one day the ice age came and all the Aurochs are frozen now. If they were still around, Hushpuppy states, she wouldn’t be Hushpuppy, just breakfast. Miss Bathsheeba also points out that one day, the ice caps will melt, and the Bathtub will be gone, so the children have to learn to survive. Miss Bathsheeba also tells them an important lesson, which is to always take care of one another.
Hushpuppy goes home and announces it’s feeding time, but her dad doesn’t come out. Hushpuppy goes around looking for Wink, but cannot find him. She ends up going back to her house (Wink and Hushpuppy have different homes). She looks out into the distance and sees a light that flashes on and off. She wonders if that’s where her mom is. The next day, after spending time with Miss Bathsheeba, she sits and waits for her dad to pick her up. Eventually she leaves by herself though. She states that if she cannot find her dad, she will have to start eating her pets. Hushpuppy goes home and makes herself dinner, which is cat food. She turns on the stove to make her dinner, and as she is preparing it, she talks to a jersey lying on a chair. It turns out that that jersey belonged to her mother, who swam away when Hushpuppy was very young. In Hushpuppy’s head, her mother asks her if she is being a good girl to which Hushpuppy replies that she is. Her mother begins singing, and Hushpuppy states that her voice is very beautiful. Suddenly, Hushpuppy hears her father. She runs out to meet him, but when she asks him where’s he’s been, he just asks her to leave him alone. Hushpuppy notices that her father is “in a dress” and “wearing a bracelet." Wink is wearing hospital clothing, though Hushpuppy doesn’t understand that it’s hospital clothing. Wink tells Hushpuppy it’s none of her business and yells at her to go home. Hushpuppy heads home and in anger turns up the stove all the way. As the stove explodes, a fire starts in her home and she hides in a box in the house. As she draws on the side of the box, she states that she’s going to leave her mark on the world. She says that one day, future scientists are going to come down and see that there was a girl named Hushpuppy who lived in the Bathtub with her dad.
Wink comes into Hushpuppy’s home screaming and trying to find her before the home burns down. Hushpuppy hides for a while, then quickly runs out, and her dad runs after her. When her dad finally catches her, he screams at her, but Hushpuppy is defiant and refuses to do what he says. Wink slaps her, and she falls to the ground. Hushpuppy gets up and tells Wink that she hopes that he dies, then when he’s dead, she’ll eat birthday cake on his grave. She then punches Wink on his chest. However, something happens to Wink, and he falls to the ground. Whatever he was in the hospital for was triggered again when Hushpuppy punched him. After her dad falls to the ground, Hushpuppy hears a storm coming. Meanwhile, we get a view of the Arctic, where a piece of the ice shelf falls into the ocean. Inside the piece that fell off, is an Auroch (it basically looks like a boar that is the size of a very large buffalo).
Hushpuppy runs off after her dad collapses. She finds Miss Bathsheeba, who makes some kind of herbal medicine and tells Hushpuppy to quickly give it to Wink. However, as soon as Hushpuppy reaches the spot where her father fell over, she can’t find him. She hides the medicine by a tree and leaves. The next day, the Bathtub is clearly worried about the incoming storm. Many people seem to be preparing to leave, packing their belongings in trucks. Hushpuppy sees her dad talking to several people and then he heads up to his favorite bar and talks to the people there. Throughout the movie, Wink has had alcohol with him and it’s clear at this point that Wink is an alcoholic. One of Wink’s buddies notices Hushpuppy and Wink rushes over to her and carries her off. Wink brings Hushpuppy into his house and divides the house with tape. He tells her that if water comes in they’ll just float to the top and nothing will happen. He tells Hushpuppy to go to sleep and not to cry, but the storm is becoming really noisy and dangerous. Hushpuppy looks worried, but Wink, in an effort to make her feel better, goes outside and states that he’s going to “scare the storm." He shoots his gun at the clouds and tells Hushpuppy to watch him scare off the storm. Unfortunately, the storm continues to be brutal and Hushpuppy screams for her mom.
The next day we see just how the storm has affected the Bathtub. Every area is flooded, and most houses are destroyed. Luckily, we see Wink and Hushpuppy climb off the roof of their house. They sail off in their boat and look for other people. While Wink is searching inside a house, he sees Hushpuppy eating a leaf and realizes that she’s hungry. He then tries to teach her how to catch a fish with her hands. They both reach their hands under the water, and Wink tries to explain the technique to catch a fish. Wink eventually catches one and lays it on the boat. He tells Hushpuppy to punch the fish’s head really hard, but when she tries, the fish bloodies her hand. Wink tries to motivate her to try again, but Hushpuppy looks hesitant.
Wink steers them to the bar and finds that there are people there and they all are a little drunk. After exchanging greetings, they begin to drink and have dinner. After dinner, Wink tells Hushpuppy the story of her conception. Hushpuppy quickly explains to us that Wink told her that her mom was so pretty, she could boil water just by walking near it. Wink tells of how he was asleep and how an alligator crept up to him. Luckily, Hushpuppy’s mom came by and shot the alligator. Wink tells Hushpuppy that he was always extremely shy with her mom and that they would just sit, drink, and be shy together. He states that Hushpuppy came into the world 4 minutes later.
The next day, Wink sails off in search of other children. She states that there are several people that are probably dead, and that for those dead people, they would hold a Bathtub-style funeral, where no crying is allowed. She also states that the universe is comprised of several tiny pieces and as soon as one of those pieces falls apart, the universe unravels. Wink finds several children and Miss Bathsheeba. She brings them all back to the bar. Later at dinner, everybody is having a good time. One of Wink’s friends is teaching Hushpuppy how to crack open a crab with a knife, but Wink suddenly yells for her to stop. Everybody goes silent. He then grabs the crab, breaks it with his hands, and eats some of it. He then tells Hushpuppy to “Beast it," meaning tear it open with her hands rather than with a knife. Eventually the whole group is chanting “beast it” and Hushpuppy tears open the crab. She eats the crab then gets up on the table and flexes her muscles and screams with the whole bar cheering for her.
Even though the Bathtub is destroyed, the remaining group forms a community by tying a few houses together and eating together. Many wonder if it’s time to leave the area but Miss Bathsheeba states that the people on the other side of the levee will just put them in a shelter. They also all realize everything is going to die soon since the area is flooded with salt water. One day, when a young girl is sick, Miss Bathsheeba takes care of her while Hushpuppy watches. Miss Bathsheeba tells Hushpuppy to always take care of your own. This community continues until one day when Hushpuppy wakes up and sees Wink and 2 of his friends with a dead alligator and getting ready to sail off. Wink comes over to Hushpuppy and tells her that he’s going to get everything back to normal. Wink and his friends sail off, and we see what their plan is. Wink sticks some dynamite inside the alligator’s mouth and hands the trip wire to one of his friends. They sail up to the levee and plant the alligator bomb at the wall. Unfortunately, Wink’s friend lost the trip wire, and it’s somewhere in the water. While all of this is occurring, Miss Bathsheeba wakes up and realizes something is wrong since the 3 men are gone. She quickly gets in her boat and sails off. Unknown to her though, Hushpuppy snuck into her boat and is hiding under a pile of net. Miss Bathsheeba sails up to Wink and his friends and finds the trip wire. She yells at Wink for his plan and throws the trip wire aside. Hushpuppy quickly grabs it and emerges from the net. Everybody freezes as Hushpuppy holds the trip wire. Miss Bathsheeba tells her not to do anything but Wink tells her to pull it. Hushpuppy pulls it, and the wall of the levee falls apart.
The water drains from the bathtub and everybody goes walking around. Unfortunately, the Bathtub is not the same. All the trees look dead, and most houses are still destroyed. Hushpuppy states that sometimes things are broken so much, that you can’t possibly fix them. Wink and Hushpuppy head home. That night, when Wink is asleep, Hushpuppy notices that he shudders when he is asleep and is obviously sick. She goes to the tree where she hid the medicine, grabs the medicine, and brings it back. The medicine looks like some sort of odd herbal mixture comprised of sticks and chopped up green plants. Hushpuppy puts this mixture on Wink’s mouth. Wink wakes up and spits the medicine out. He then grabs the jar that the medicine was in and throws it across the room and breaks it. In frustration, Hushpuppy then starts throwing things, as well. In response, Wink begins to throw more things. Then they eventually start to have fun and throw stuff at each other. Wink eventually has to lie down from his sickness. Hushpuppy asks if he is going to die. He states that he isn’t going to die yet. Hushpuppy then asks if she is going to die. Wink states that she has 100 years left and she won’t die yet. Wink tells her that one day though, he will die, and she will have to fend for herself. She’ll have to be king of the Bathtub and perhaps the last resident of the Bathtub. He then tells her that she has to be a man. He challenges her to an arm wrestling match and lets Hushpuppy win. He then asks who’s the man and Hushpuppy screams, “I’m the man!” Wink then lets Hushpuppy sleep next to him and she falls asleep listening to his heartbeat.
While all of these events have been occurring, the Aurochs have been steadily approaching. They are big and strong enough to plow through buildings and Hushpuppy tells us that they are ruthless enough to eat their own parents when they’re hungry.
The next day, Hushpuppy hears a helicopter overhead and sees people from outside the Bathtub outside their home. Hushpuppy wakes up Wink and Wink tells the men to go away. The men say that this is a forced evacuation and drag Wink and Hushpuppy out of the Bathtub. The next thing we see is a shelter, where the residents of the Bathtub have been brought. Hushpuppy is in awe of the lights inside the shelter. While they are being served food, a doctor comes up and tells Wink his condition is serious. Wink yells at him and tells the doctor not to say this in front of Hushpuppy. While Wink and the doctor talk farther away, Hushpuppy catches tidbits of their conversation such as if Wink does not get the surgery, which is very risky, then he will die.
Afterwards, we see Wink hooked up to several machines. Hushpuppy remarks that when people get sick here, they get hooked up to the wall. She listens to the heartbeat of an elderly patient. After Wink’s surgery, we see him trying to get out of bed, but the doctors won’t let him. They give him some pills and he goes to sleep with Hushpuppy watching. After the doctors leave, Wink spits out the pills and gets out of bed. He tells Hushpuppy that they are leaving. It turns out the residents of the Bathtub have been planning an escape for a while. They get out of the shelter and get on a bus, but Wink does not get on the bus. Hushpuppy watches in horror as the bus leaves behind her dad. She screams to stop, and they do. She runs out to Wink, and Wink tells her that he is going to die. She states that he can’t die because he’s her dad. But he says that he’s going to die and that he can’t take care of her anymore. He just didn’t want Hushpuppy to watch him die. Hushpuppy almost cries, but Wink tells her to not cry. Wink eventually gives in and goes back to the Bathtub with the others. Hushpuppy watches as her dad just lies down and coughs up blood. She remembers a time in the past when her dad told her that if he ever becomes old enough to not take care of her, then Hushpuppy is to put him in his boat and light it on fire while he sails off.
Hushpuppy eventually gets a group of 3 girls, and they begin to swim towards the light in the distance where Hushpuppy thinks her mom is. They get quite a ways and eventually get picked up by a boat. The man on the boat asks Hushpuppy where she’s going, and Hushpuppy tells him that she’s going to her mom. He states that’s as good as any place.
They eventually get to a club with a sign “Girls Girls Girls!” They go inside and are greeted by several women. Hushpuppy wanders past them while the women pay attention to the other girls in Hushpuppy’s group. Hushpuppy eventually finds a woman who looks like her mom did. The woman asks if Hushpuppy wants anything, but Hushpuppy remains silent. The woman then leads Hushpuppy to a back room and begins to cook some alligator. Hushpuppy remembers in the past when her mom made her alligator. While the woman is making the alligator, she tells Hushpuppy that one day she’s going to have to handle everything for herself and that when something falls to the ground, she’s going to have to be the one to pick it up. The woman puts the cooked alligator in a box for Hushpuppy. Later we see all the girls are dancing with the women and are enjoying the affection they are receiving. The woman who Hushpuppy is with has picked her up and Hushpuppy states that she can count the amount of times she’s been picked up on two fingers. One of these times was when she was first born. Hushpuppy tells the woman that she wants to stay with her and bring her dad. The woman remarks that she doesn’t know Hushpuppy’s dad, but the woman says Hushpuppy is welcome to stay with her.
Hushpuppy and the girls arrive back at the Bathtub. However, the Aurochs have also arrived, as well. The Aurochs are running after them and the girls Hushpuppy is with run off screaming. Hushpuppy remains composed and walks. When one Auroch gets close to her, she turns around and stares at it. Suddenly, all the Aurochs stop. Hushpuppy and the Auroch stare at each other for a while and Hushpuppy remarks that she thinks the Auroch is kind of her friend (being that they are both sort of beasts of a nearly extinct group of species). Hushpuppy then states that she has to “take care of her own." She then walks toward the house where her dad is, and the Aurochs turn around and go away.
Hushpuppy goes in to see Wink and Wink is obviously in bad condition. Hushpuppy has brought the cooked alligator in the box and feeds some of it to Wink. Hushpuppy also takes a bite. Wink remarks that it’s good. Wink then begins to cry, and Hushpuppy begins to cry, as well. Wink tells her with tears rolling down his face that she shouldn’t be crying. Hushpuppy cries more at this and puts her head on his chest. She listens to his last heartbeats and then Wink dies.
The next scene we see is Hushpuppy putting Wink’s body in their boat and setting it on fire. The other residents of the Bathtub participate in the funeral and no one cries. We next see Hushpuppy leading a group in the Bathtub walking down a road. She restates that one day, the future scientists will find evidence of a girl named Hushpuppy that lived with her father in the Bathtub.
The credits roll after this statement.
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