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Rodents of Unusual Size
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by Jay Seaver

"And you think that mouse you saw the other day was a problem!"
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2018: I went on vacation to New Orleans just a couple months before seeing this movie, and while I would not have made other plans if that sequencing was reversed, just seeing its poster or even an image or two of nutrias might have given me pause, especially when I got to the part about how members of this 20-pound species can make their way up sewer pipes and into toilets. But that's also a big part of the appeal of this documentary: Discovering that there are peculiar and fascinating things not far out of plain sight.

In this case, that's the nutria, a rodent with a rat-like tail on one end and orange tusks on the other, imported from Argentina around a hundred years ago to be raised for their pelts. They got loose during a flood and spread throughout the bayou, trapped by Cajuns until the 1980s, when the bottom fell out of the fur market. No longer hunted by humans and not having any natural predators (they breed faster than alligators can eat them, especially in the winter), their population exploded, and as invasive species tend to do, they had a devastating effect not just on the local wildlife but on the very bayou itself, to the point where the state of Louisiana has offered a bounty of five dollars for every nutria tail brought in.

That paragraph could serve as the entry on nutria in a textbook that has a lot of material to cover and it's fair to wonder how one gets an entire film out of it, but Rodents of Unusual Size becomes a nifty little documentary because it's about something that initially seems small and singular but which actually touches upon much larger things. Filmmakers Quinn Costello, Chris Metzler, and Jeff Springer started from a simple starting point - these unusual animals and the people who trap them - but they are quickly able to expand the subjects covered to the idea of invasive species and how human and environmental systems interact. It is, aside from being a fine primer on its own topic, also just a good introduction to understanding just how far-reaching consequences can be.

This may sound dry, but the filmmakers find a highly-entertaining group of people to follow. They tend to gravitate to Thomas Gonzales, a Cajun trapper who has been hunting these varmints for decades and has seen his home wiped out repeatedly by hurricanes; he's genial local who nevertheless has something of a sad story. There are other interesting folks out in the bayou, from those trying to scrape by to the well-off people living by a golf course that sabotage traps becauseā€¦ well, they're affluent folks who think they know better. There's also an entertaining contingent inside New Orleans - a jazz musician/restaurateur who talks about both dealing with nutria growing up and what Katrina did to his district before trying to cook them up and convince people to eat them, as well as a higher-end chef and a fashion designer trying to get some practical use out of these critters. It is, more than is the case with many documentaries, a decent cross-section of the area, with prominent African-American, white, and Native American subjects of various ages and income levels.

The filmmakers bring energy to the telling as well, dropping a lot of early information in a lively animated section toward the front, and calling on some local talent by having Wendell Pierce narrate and The Lost Bayou Ramblers compose the soundtrack. The filmmakers recognize that they don't have to keep digging to find complexity that isn't there or to create conflict, and as a result, the film kind of needs to stretch itself - it's 70 minutes long and can often be found circling the same points or drifting into general "Louisiana is unique and cool" territory (which, to be fair, is not exactly ever bad material).

Nevertheless, it gets the job done - you'll learn something quickly and be fairly entertained while you do - although, be warned, there is no chance of a "no animals were harmed" credit at the end; nutria are shot, skinned, cooked, have their tails cut off, and generally disposed of, if you're squeamish about that. Myself, I'm glad I didn't run into any of these beasties while down there, but quite enjoyed seeing a movie about the situation.

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originally posted: 06/02/18 11:52:51
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Directed by
  Quinn Costello
  Chris Metzler
  Jeff Springer

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