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On the other side of the Delta levees is a shantytown called The Bathtub. It’s so cut off from the outside world that six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) envisions her community as a wonderland. Life is simple, clothes are dirty and magic is everywhere.
Hushpuppy lives next to her father Wink (Dwight Henry) and spends her day collecting pets, feeding the hodgepodge of animals, listening to the heartbeats of every creature she encounters and making sense of the universe as only a small child can. Wink is a hard man who shows his love by doggedly teaching Hushpuppy how to survive in her hostile surroundings. She, in turn, discusses her thoughts with an old T-shirt that she has deemed the embodiment of her mother, who abandoned Hushpuppy to squalor.
School is a daily talk from Ms. Bathsheeba (Gina Montana), who speaks of aurochs, ancient beasts that ate babies and ruled the world before humans. Homes are made of scrap metal and shards of wood. There is no indoor plumbing. The town is knit together by alcohol-fueled music jams, fireworks and the strong feeling of community that comes from shared hardships.
In Hushpuppy’s mind, the whole universe is a delicate balance with The Bathtub its center.
Left on her own for a few days, she throws a champion tantrum, screaming about hatred and doing dangerous things to show her displeasure. Soon her father becomes ill, which Hushpuppy reads as a disturbance in her world. In her mind, ice caps are melting and ancient aurochs are freed from their icy slumber to devour her and The Bathtub. As a storm threatens to envelop the island community in floodwaters, Hushpuppy must try to fix the piece of the universe to restore order to her world.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a lyrical trip through the mind of a six-year-old. The feature debut of director Benh Zeitlin, Beasts captures both the squalor of the bayou town and the beauty seen by an intrepid little girl. Zeitlin does a wonderful job of realizing the world inside Hushpuppy’s mind, so while you’re aware of the dire reality of her world, you also understand why she loves it so fiercely.
Leading lady Wallis powers the movie. At the age of six, this newcomer to the screen gives Hushpuppy such spirit and heart that you’re instantly invested in her story. Clad in Wellingtons and ratty underwear, she stomps through the landscape with a mixture of regal poise and intense curiosity.
Zeitlin used many local actors (without screen credits) to give the movie authenticity. Henry, a New Orleans baker by trade, is wonderful as Wink, a man who feels deep love for his child but knows that he won’t be able to protect her from the world for long.
Zeitlin makes the best of his low budget with stylish shots of the aurochs, imaginative staging and stunning visuals of life on the bayou. At times, the film stretches its visual metaphors a bit too far and simplifies peripheral characters. If you think too hard about the reality of Hushpuppy’s situation, the poetry of her world gives way to a looming sense of disaster. Still, the film offers a unique look into the imaginings of children.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a film that offers art in the midst of the summer blockbuster season. It’s well worth a look. After all, how many times can you see The Dark Knight Rises?