Family can be a surreal, sordid affair, and Mark Rapaport takes this already absurd concept to an even more absurd extreme with his debut feature Hippo, a dreamlike late 90s period piece that feels like the unholy love child of David Lynch and John Waters in its depiction of the seedy underbelly of suburbia injected with a solid dose of camp.

            Hippo is the story of Hippo, a sullen and narcissistic 19-year-old boy who lives with his mother and adopted sister Buttercup in Suburbia, USA. Hippo spends his days pouring hours and hours of gameplay into the N64 title Body Harvest, going as far as to bleach his hair to resemble one of the characters. His mother exists essentially to fawn over Hippo and attend to his every whim while constantly telling her children about a UFO she saw, while Buttercup is awash in Catholic guilt all while fantasizing about bearing Hippo’s child. And it’s all narrated by the great Eric Roberts, an aspect that gives the film a sleazy Wes Anderson sheen to the whole affair.

            This is clearly meant to be a transgressive film, with Hippo’s temper tantrums and constant disregard for the feelings of others quickly becoming grating and abrasive. The Oedipal vibes between his mom and him, as well as the fact that since she never taught her children the birds and bees’ sexual issues are openly discussed in unnervingly childlike ways and his sister wanting to fuck him make this a film that’ll have you squirming in your seat as you watch it. It’s not gross in a Peter Jackson Dead Alive way or a Salo way, but more just like you’re seeing and hearing something you shouldn’t be privy to. The fact that it’s shot in black and white gives it an obscene inversion of Leave It To Beaver feeling, like this is the American Dream run horribly off the tracks. And once a date Buttercup has with a local scumbag goes horribly and murderously wrong the film becomes even more off the wall and unhinged.

            This movie shouldn’t work. By all rights it should be the kind of thing you roll your eyes at and change the channel as fast as you can. But believe me it does work. Kimball Farley’s portrayal of Hippo (and co-writer of the screenplay) is so genuinely weird and off-putting that you feel he’d have trouble connecting with people even in the best of circumstances. Hippo is everything that dipshit art kids try to be: bizarre, abrasive, and distant. Except Kimball sells it all as totally genuine, as in Hippo is not just unaware of how people see him but he also truly doesn’t care. He’s not being a weird dickhead for attention because he’s likely unaware other people can even pay attention to him. In a time in which the “awkward outsider” archetype is flooding the film industry, it’s refreshing to see a character who is so truly weird that bullies and jocks would steer clear of him rather than pick on him, someone who will never find themselves redeemed when the cool kids realize how internally interesting he is. Hippo, to be honest, probably only barely qualifies as a human being, and Kimball sells that aspect beautifully. Lilla Kizlinger creates Buttercup as an outsider amongst outsiders, someone who is constantly reminded that she is not actually of the family. She is the quiet strangeness to Hippo’s brash defiance of normalcy, the uncomfortable outcast intimidated by her brother’s bizarre extroversion. In the end she is the one who commits the ultimate transgression, but for much of the film she is the foil to Hippo’s irritating otherness.

            Ultimately, Hippo is a surprisingly sweet film. Hidden beneath layers of darkly obscene camp are ruminations of loneliness, isolation, loss, and alienation. These are all deeply troubled people who for whatever reason have found it impossible to connect with others, all the while yearning for such connection whether they know it or not. It’s not an easy watch and may come off as a bit exasperating at times, but it’s absolutely worth it to stick through.