Fantasia 2023 Review: HIPPO, A Hilariously Disturbing Suburban Nightmare
An unusual family lives an unusual life in Mark H. Rapaport’s Hippo, one of the stranger films playing at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival. Rapaport drops us into a suburban dystopic home where society’s rules don’t seem to apply, and no subject is too taboo to elicit nervous laughter. Hippo (Kimball Farley) and his Hungarian adopted sister Buttercup (Lilla Kizlinger) share a troubling relationship with each other and their mother, Ethel (Eliza Roberts), as they approach adulthood wholly unprepared for the world outside their doors.
A young man on the verge of adulthood, Hippo is an odd duck. He spends his days playing video games, bossing around his mother, and searching for automatic weapons on the internet. It’s the late ‘90s, two of these three activities appear quite crude to modern eyes, but honestly, with the black and white place-out-of-time aesthetic of the film, the era is less important than the idea that these hobbies take place in isolation from the rest of the world.
Hippo, Buttercup, and their mother don’t interact with the outside world. Their father passed away five years prior to the action of the film, and their co-dependent relationships have grown so bizarre in the intervening years that it is difficult to imagine this trio of maladjusted weirdos passing for human in the real world. Hippo fancies himself a literal god in human form, Buttercup worships the ground he walks on while attempting in vain to forge some sense of normalcy, and mother simply acquiesces to Hippo’s every whim, no matter how bizarre, and boy, do they get bizarre.
It is difficult to explain the allure of Hippo without simply listing the dozens of increasingly strange set pieces and actions that comprise its bewildering story. Imagine if Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth took place in late ‘90s midwestern suburbia. They incorporate the isolationism of Covid quarantine anxiety, the contemporaneous fears brought on by the Columbine school shooting massacre, put a John Waters-esque spin on the angular familial relationships in Napoleon Dynamite, and do it all in the style of a horrific Wes Anderson film shot in stark monochrome.
A film like Hippo doesn’t work without a cast who completely understand the assignment, and Kimball Farley’s dual roles as lead actor and co-writer ensure that Hippo, for all of his bizarre obsessions and delusions, is a real, terrifying character. Farley’s ability to sell increasingly absurd dialogue as the Hippo loses touch with reality is truly impressive. Kizlinger’s commitment to taking Buttercup to equally uncomfortable spaces complements Farley’s Hippo in every way. Buttercup is also losing touch, but within her disintegration there is a kernel of normalcy trying to get out.
As Buttercup attempts to reach out beyond her insulated world, a fourth character is introduced in Darwin (Jesse Pimentel). Since engaging with the world is not something that really interests her, Buttercup instead seeks male physical companionship through the embryonic site Craigslist. When she answers Darwin’s ad and invites him over for a family dinner – at the request of her mother – this imposition pushes Hippo into panic mode, and the family’s disintegration hastens. Pimentel’s portrayal of a sleazeball who is just aching to get into Buttercup’s pants is pitched perfectly. He’s disturbed by what he sees happening around him, but he’s too hormonal to care. He is the most “normal” character in the film, and he’s just the absolute worst.
The film is painstakingly designed to disturb, and it accomplishes that goal by any reasonable metric. Rapaport plays with topics that would make even the most hardened film fan blush, touching on perverse sexuality, themes of incest, and the implicit violence of the sheltered male incel, all with a formalist structure and aesthetic crafted to lend a sense of authority to this grotesque existence. It’s a mind fuck of a movie, filled with uncomfortable laughs, ludicrous characters, and if that wasn’t enough, it is topped off with a soupcon of narration from the one and only Eric Roberts. Hippo is America’s answer to Dogtooth, and it’s wonderful.