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“Hippo” defies categorization, but it’s a wickedly funny, stunningly photographed, twisted fairytale that’s as charming as it is disturbing.

Hippo

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It took me all of two seconds to fall in love with Hippo, though, to be fair, I can’t promise you’ll feel the same. It’s wonderfully weird and defies categorization in a way that will alienate those who gravitate toward more mainstream fare.

For the game, however, director and co-writer Mark H. Rapaport’s twisted fairytale and subversive slice of Americana, loosely inspired by Euripides’ tragedy Hippolytus (about a pompous prince who heartlessly scorns a woman and faces dire consequences), offers an endless array of delights.

HIPPO is a provocative blend of Wes Anderson and Yorgos Lanthimos, shot in striking black-and-white inspired by moody, high-art cinema like PERSONA and COLD WAR.

The narrative centers around the titular Hippo, whose real name is Adam (played to aberrant perfection by co-writer Kimball Farley), and his more innocent Hungarian stepsister Buttercup (Lilla Kizlinger), struggling to come of age in late 1990s America with their well-meaning but not-quite-mentally-sound mother, Ethel (Eliza Roberts). Living an isolated, sheltered existence, the two teens try to make sense of a world they barely understand.

Hippo is a misanthropic nineteen-year-old obsessed with video games and suffering from delusions of grandeur.

He believes he’s been called to a higher mission to save humanity from an impending alien invasion. A naïve man-child enabled and doted on by his overly accommodating mother, Hippo starts off slightly off-kilter but becomes more neurotic and borderline psychotic as the film progresses.

Meanwhile, seventeen-year-old Buttercup is the mostly level-headed calm to Hippo’s storm until she suddenly decides she wants a child and is now desperate to make that happen, despite never having had a relationship or even understanding much about sex.

A late-in-the-game “birds and the bees” talk from their mom does little to help Buttercup or Hippo understand sex.

In fact, it leaves them more misguided than ever — especially Hippo, who becomes convinced his sperm has superhuman properties.

Though Buttercup secretly lusts after Hippo, she decides she can’t wait for him to reciprocate her feelings, turning to Craigslist to find a suitable mate to impregnate her.

This leads to one of the most hilarious and unhinged parts of the film when she invites her potential suitor, Darwin (Jesse Pimentel), over for a family dinner. When Darwin prepares to make his move on her, Hippo’s protective nature kicks into overdrive, and things really start to go off the rails for the dysfunctional family.

HIPPO is at times shocking and envelope-pushing, throwing a kitchen sink of dysfunctionality at us, including Oedipal themes, incest, Catholic guilt and sexual repression, sexual predators, conspiracy theories, and the angry young incel.

Looking like a young Jim Jarmusch and channeling Napoleon Dynamite — if he were more like Holden Caulfield meets Donnie Darko — Farley is extraordinary as the deviant but still vulnerable and empathetic Hippo.

Though we’re dealing with deeply flawed characters, there’s a charm and inherent likability that makes you care about them and keeps you deeply invested. Ultimately, as weird and deeply narcissistic as Hippo is, he feels lost and unguided in a way that makes you feel for him.

As for Buttercup, her position as the perpetual outsider — and obvious second fiddle to the favorite son, the pampered prince — is tragic and makes you understand her desperation for unconditional love in the form of a baby.

It’s an absurdist, surrealist period piece with elements of John Waters’ camp and Lynchian madness. It’s full of dark humor, but it also has a surprising amount of heart and resonant themes about loneliness and our need for human connection.

With its gorgeous cinematography, transfixing classical score, sharp dialogue, and warm narration that feels soothing even as the fairytale becomes increasingly dark and disorienting, Hippo is an avant-garde gift and a mightily impressive debut from Rapaport.

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 5
Produced by David Gordon Green, along with frequent collaborators Danny McBride and Jody Hill, HIPPO had its World Premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival on July 26th, 2023, and was recently shown at Panic Fest, where it was screened for this review.

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