Mark H. Rapaport’s “Hippo” boasts executive producer credits and kudos from Jody Hill, Danny McBride, and David Gordon Green. Indeed, this memorable feature directorial debut has the air of their work, namely “The Righteous Gemstones.” In his own way, Rapaport has also concocted a strange American family and committed to an absurd tone, in which what is horrific or funny can alternate without being that obvious. “Hippo”‘s sense of what is interesting is equally anarchistic as it is dry, like an unholy fusion of “A Clockwork Orange” and “Napoleon Dynamite.”
Hippo (co-writer Kimball Farley) is the name of an American young man who plays Nintendo 64 (specifically “Body Harvest”), drinks Mt. Dew that he pours into milk, and looks at guns online. He soon thinks he must stop the apocalypse. Meanwhile, his younger adopted sister from Hungary, Buttercup (Lilla Kizlinger), wants to be a mother. But she doesn’t know how to make that happen. The story, more of a dual character study co-starring their disoriented mother, Ethel (Eliza Roberts), generally concerns their lack of awareness about violence and sex and their possibly self-destructive immaturity. “Hippo” is not afraid to push buttons of weirdness, as with the sexual tension that builds between brother and half-sister, as clueless as they both are.
The inner workings of Hippo, his far more innocent sibling Buttercup, and their mother Ethel are expressed by a soft, warm voiceover from Eric Roberts (“Surely his sexual wounds were deep and infected, too?”). His voice is but one of the many aesthetic pieces that make “Hippo” a transfixing oddity—it has a soundtrack mostly of Bach, Monteverdi, and Liszt, paired with William Babcock’s rich black-and-white cinematography, which frames characters often in the bottom half of a frame, making negative space always relative. Their lives are presented ornately and anthropologically, within an aesthetic I could have watched ten hours of.