6-year-old heroine galvanizes bayou survival fable, ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’
It’s one of the most common plotlines there is: finding one’s place in the Universe. But rarely has a coming-of-age story been told with such engrossing originality as in Beasts of the Southern Wild.
This remarkable first feature from Benh Zeitlin takes a potentially gritty tale of a philosophical 6-year-old Southern bayou girl forged in the crucible of extreme circumstance, and infuses it with elements of fairy tale, folklore and magic realism in a way that has won hearts and earned accolades from Sundance to Cannes.
At the center of the storm (both metaphorically and literally, plot-wise) is a tiny dynamo named Quvenzhané Wallis, the non-professional actress who stars in the film. As its unlikely heroine, a girl called Hushpuppy, Wallis is onscreen in every scene, and we never get tired of her expressive face; she’s a poignant little vessel soaking up experience at every turn, reacting with wonder, rage, or determination as circumstances continue to shift. As poetic or surreal as the story may become, she keeps things firmly grounded in reality.
Hushpuppy lives with her daddy in a lowland region of the Southern Delta nicknamed “The Bathtub” for its susceptibility to flooding. Over on “the dry side” of the levee, says Hushpuppy, “they afraid of the water like a bunch of babies.” But she and her daddy, Wink (the excellent Dwight Henry), love the water, navigating the bayou in their pontoon fishing boat built from spare junk parts. In the fertile greenbelt where they live, their two adjoining piecemeal shacks are overrun with chickens, a hog, a pet dog and cat. It looks like a slum, but it’s a wonderland to Hushpuppy, who’s constantly exploring the natural world and listening to her animals’ heartbeats.
Her relationship with her hard-drinking daddy is volatile, but not abusive; he’s desperately trying to teach her survival skills for the time he’s not around (which he realizes is coming sooner rather than later). But when he slaps her once out of frustration, and she wishes him dead, he keels over on the spot. He’s up and around
again soon, but Hushpuppy fears she’s broken a critical piece of the universe, which “depends on everything fitting together.”
The teacher at the ramshackle schoolroom, Miss Bathsheeba (Gina Montana), has a cave painting-like imageof giant prehistoric aurochs and a couple of puny humans tattooed on her thigh; Hushpuppy begins to imagine a rift in the universe where the glaciers melt and a herd of frozen aurochs break free to roam the earth. (Animals “know when your hearts are weak,” Hushpuppy says, “and that makes them hungry. Then they start coming.”) But as the aurochs advance in Hushpuppy’s imagination, an even more alarming threat is posed by a ferocious gathering storm that might sink the Bathtub forever.
Zeitlin achieves a delicate balancing act with the film’s tone throughout, from Hushpuppy’s wistful longing for her absent mama (she’s drawn to a light on the horizon she believes is her spirit), to the community’s quiet resolution in the face of catastrophe and death. In a story brimming with subtle themes and metaphors (the moment that Hushpuppy faces down the aurochs born of her own fear is stunning), one of its most compelling aspects is the solidarity of a community determined to hold on to its home, its folkways, and each other.
(After the storm, the survivors build their own camp where they collect more strays and share whatever they have. When they are forcibly removed to a white, sterile box of a shelter on the dry side, full of stranded people, Hushpuppy observes it’s not exactly a prison; but “it looks like a fish tank with no water in it.”)
It’s this child’s viewpoint—an irresisitible mix of awe, trepidation, and grit—that makes the film so special. The constantly evolving scenario that Hushpuppy keeps spinning to make sense of irrational events completely draws us in—as does young Wallis, whose poise and naturalism are amazing. Ditto, Henry (a professional
baker who was running his own bakery when the film crew came to town), whose complex Wink is tough, scary, and full of grace. Despite some shaky hand-held camerawork, this is an expressionistic modern fable to cherish.
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
★★★ (out of four)
With Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry. Written by Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin. Directed by Benh Zeitlin. A Fox Searchlight release. Rated PG-13. 91 minutes.