Fiercely independent and utterly asocial, the freckle-faced, 10-year-old girl at the center of “Kid-Thing” hardly invites viewer identification. Barely parented by her goat-tending father, she basically runs wild, wandering the woods, shooting cows with a paint gun and busting things with a baseball bat. When she encounters a woman trapped in a well who begs for help, she is uncertain what to do. Spearheaded by phenomenal pint-sized lead Sydney Aguirre, this challenging third feature from the Zellner Brothers retains much of their provocative trademark idiocy but navigates darker waters, potentially broadening their loyal fanbase.
Annie (Aguirre) lives in a poor Texas backwater with none-too-bright father Marvin (producer-lenser Nathan Zellner), inseparable from his demolition-derby buddy Caleb (helmer-scribe David Zellner). Accustomed to dumbass roles, the brothers dumb themselves down even further to near-moronic status, Annie gazing unamused as the two chase each other with Roman candles or guffaw inanely until red in the face. The feeling of economic stagnation resonates everywhere. Even the opening demolition-derby scene is picked up at the tired tail end of the action, with banged-up cars slogging through dust and nary a collision in sight.
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Repressing multiple emotions (anger, envy, frustration, loneliness, fear), Annie lets little show on her face, aggressively acting out instead. She makes annoying crank calls, knocks things off shelves, insults kids at a roadside playground and throws wadded-up pastry dough at passing motorists; this affords a shining comic moment when a bald, beer-bellied guy and his skinny pal stop the car to investigate the source of the impact.
But the woman in the well, Esther, manifested only by a disembodied voice (the inimitable Susan Tyrrell) reverberating from a dark hole in the ground, has Annie totally flummoxed. The girl tosses her a walkie-talkie and shoplifted food and drink, but seems oddly conflicted about going to seek help. When Esther becomes more desperate, her voice deepening and her moans more unearthly, Annie’s resentment at being given orders turns to fear that she may be dealing with the devil himself.
Aguirre’s tour-de-force perf extends her anarchic bat-swinging role in the Zellners’ “This Old World” musicvideo, but in a bleaker register. Cinematically, Annie is not unique in her resolute stubbornness; parental neglect and rural isolation breed similar dissociation in Bresson’s “Mouchette,” the Dardennes’ “Rosetta” and Denis Cote’s “Curling,” whose young heroine befriends a bunch of frozen corpses in the Canadian woods.