Hippo is a Welcome Addition to the Canon of Cinematic Transgression

Mark H. Rapaport’s debut feature Hippo knows it is profoundly wicked and distasteful. We often talk about films being like the love child of other films, but Hippo is distinctly a hate child. Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth and Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg come to suburban 1990’s America via Wes Anderson and John Waters with just a touch of Tim Burton to cap it off. Throw in a pinch of Andrew Birkin’s cinematic adaptation of Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden and a soupcon of Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfant Terribles and a sprinkle of Buñuel and you’re getting somewhere close to what Rapaport and Kimball Farley (who also stars as the titular Hippo) are serving up. Hippo is fringe cinema meant to disturb, but also destined to make you laugh in the queasiest manner.

Frontloading this review with other titles might suggest the film is derivative: it is not. Think of the films and directors listed (with the exception of Anderson and Burton) and if you believe that those works were beyond the pale then Hippo is not for you. If you are intrigued, read on.

Hippo (Kimball Farley) or Adam, is a highly intelligent but delusional and belligerent teenager living with his mentally ill mother Ethel (Eliza Roberts), and his adopted Hungarian sister, Buttercup (Lilla Kizlinger) in a house no-one visits. This dysfunctional family has been living outside society for so long they have no idea how to interact with it. Hippo is coming up on nineteen and spends all his time playing ‘Body Harvest’ on his Nintendo 64, looking at assault rifles on the internet, and masturbating into his plush hippo toy. Buttercup prays fervently for a child and to experience sex which she imagines must be as divine as listening to Debussy or Liszt. Ethel fawns over Hippo and constantly references the UFO that invaded her husband’s brain (a husband that is now deceased). With no father figure Hippo has decided he is the man of the house and must be obeyed. He thinks video games are “divine porcelain realities” and thinks the military is for “betas” but desperately wants a gun to protect the family from an unknown threat.

Neither Hippo nor Buttercup have been educated about the “birds and the bees” – although Buttercup is certainly aware of her burgeoning libido. Hippo’s world view is so skewed that he thinks his semen is a precious and acidic weapon that could ward off alien attack. He believes he is some kind of Nietzschean Übermensch, with, as Eric Robert’s narration informs the audience “…a potent mega weapon attached to his own hips. What is a god if not a man without limits? And what is man but a creature with a god finger between his legs.” He demands to be esteemed at his nineteenth birthday party (a bizarre event) because “I’m a big man now. You have to respect me, it’s in the constitution.” Wearing a black suit taken from his father’s closet and sporting dyed hair to match his favourite henchman in ‘Body Harvest’, Hippo might be almost a pitiful character if not for the fact he is wielding a crossbow and having potentially homicidal tantrums.

Buttercup is trying to find some normalcy in her twisted world where her brother is also the object of her desire. Realising that he will not have sex with her she goes on to Craigslist to find a “fertile specimen” to father her child. Here she encounters actual paedophile and sex offender, Darwin (Jesse Pimentel) who Esther insists must come over to dinner before Buttercup can date him.

An already bizarre film swerves further into absurdity as Esther ends up dead (there are a lot of bodies buried on the property) and Buttercup now becomes the “matriarch” of the family, there to assure Hippo has his breakfast and to clean his clothes. Buttercup has other plans and the clueless Hippo who believes he is in control of not only his suburban fiefdom but also a planetary protector is at the centre of them.

Hippo is designed to provoke. Every character is off-kilter and Rapaport’s immaculate direction, and stunning black and white compositions add to the sickly camp of the film. It is an absurdist comedy where laughing will make you feel like you might just be a pervert. There is also some not-so-subtle commentary about how outsiders become easily radicalised through sheer ignorance. Hippo himself is a twisted mirror of patriarchal and incel mindsets given full license because they are fed with their own self-aggrandizement. By setting the film in the late 1990s Rapaport is asking the audience to think about how internet culture, conspiracy, and loneliness bred a new version of the unhinged outsider.

Hippo through its heightened (un)reality displays a rot in the core of American suburbia. Although far from a new concept, the manner in which Rapaport delivers his thesis is breath taking. Hippo is a melange of ideas that the audience understands brought to life with perturbing abnormality. Hippo has all the hallmarks of being a cult-classic and is a welcome addition to the world of cinematic transgression.

Director: Mark H. Rapaport

Cast: Kimball Farley, Lilla Kizlinger, Eliza Roberts

Writers: Mark H. Rapaport, Kimball Farley

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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