For the uninitiated, a nutria is a cat-sized semiaquatic rodent with Cheeto-orange gopher teeth that looks like someone saw a beaver and thought, “But what if we made it uglier?”
Brought to Louisiana from their native Argentina by the fur industry in the 1930s and escaping into the wild soon after, their population numbers were kept (somewhat) under control in spite of a lack of any natural predators –save the occasional alligator — through hunting, as there was good money to be made from selling their pelts.
But then animal welfare concerns pushed fur out of fashion in the 1980s, and the market collapsed. With no demand, hunters saw no need to provide a supply, and the invasive nutria population skyrocketed, ravaging Louisiana’s coastal wetlands in a takeover resembling a 1950s creature feature brought to life. So, in 2002, the state government introduced a nutria bounty program — $5 a tail — to inspire local hunters to head back out again.
Thus sets the stage for Rodents of Unusual Size, a delightfully fun name for what proves to be a surprisingly thoughtful and commendably thorough documentary. The saying goes that there are two sides to every story, but real life is really effing complicated so most situations seem to have more like 25-plus sides, and co-directors Chris Metzler, Jeff Springer, and Quinn Costello to have taken the time and energy to track down every single one of them.
The film, which is narrated by actor Wendell Pierce, is balanced to the point where you can easily see where removing one or two interviews here and there could have entirely changed the narrative — how a team with an agenda could have turned the film into something lambasting the anti-fur movement, or how one seeking low-hanging fruit could have just focused on the “eww giant rats” angle from beginning to end.
Instead, while the documentary features a wealth of information on nutria — there’s an impressive amount of content packed into a highly watchable 70 minutes — it’s also about a whole lot more than rodents. It’s a snapshot of a community in flux, a portrait of crisis management on every level from individual people to state government, and it manages to keep the story engaging without turning anybody into a villain. Not even the nutria.
The documentary in recent memory to which the most obvious comparison can be made would be Kedi, the delightful 2016 film about street cats in Istanbul. Like Rodents of Unusual Size, it’s about an introduced species turned local emblem and it addresses evolving communities and a changing way of life.
But where Kedi has perhaps a bit more style, Rodents of Unusual Size has more substance. It still has plenty of personal accounts, but it supplements them with history and science, via charming animations, and interviews with representatives involved in shaping policies in addition to those affected by them.
Ultimately, though, it is the personal angle that the documentary gives top priority. The through line is Thomas Gonzales, a fisherman and lifelong resident of the coastal wetland community Delacroix Island who, like many residents, hunts nutria to supplement his income. His home ravaged beyond recognition over the past few decades by hurricanes and nutria infestation, Gonzales’ understandably melancholic commentary is laced with a shocking amount of good humor.
“When I go, this world don’t owe me nothin’,” he comments at one point with a slight smile and disarmingly affable manner while looking out at the inhospitable brown marshes that in his youth had been “nothing but big oak trees.” He’s the backbone of the film and the perfect person for the job; while the documentary features a number of informative and engaging individuals, it’s hard to imagine any would fill his central role quite as well.
Sometimes somber but never hopeless, Rodents of Unusual Size is informative and entertaining and, in light of the subject matter, shockingly pleasant to watch. You may have never considered donating a little over an hour of your life to learn about swamp rats before, but this film makes a compelling case that you should.