The Sundance Film Festival hit Beasts of the Southern Wild drifts around an impoverished community called the Bathtub, a fictional locale existing somewhere near coastal Louisiana. With ramshackle homes jerry-rigged of junk and spare parts, the Bathtub could be the final resting place for all of America's cast-off objects — and people — that float down the Mississippi River. The film's central father and daughter spend much of the story traveling on a raft made from a pickup truck's flatbed lashed to some oil drums, summing up their makeshift ingenuity.
With a poor but proud rural community beset by flood and government-ordered relocation, Beasts of the Southern Wild reopens wounds left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Director Benh Zeitlin aims not for an angry Louisiana docudrama in the vein of HBO's "Treme," but strives to achieve something closer to magical realism. You've never seen anything quite like Beasts of the Southern Wild as it attempts to blend a little girl's journey of self-discovery, a natural disaster, and the revival of prehistoric beasts into a new American myth.
Quvenzhané Wallis plays Hushpuppy, a 6-year-old girl who lives a semiferal existence in the Bathtub, sleeping in a dilapidated trailer with farm animals as her playmates. Her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), attempts to raise her, but can barely fend for himself. He tends to disappear for days and return with hospital bracelets on his arm. Hushpuppy's mother is out of the picture, although Wink describes her as having almost supernatural beauty. "He said she was so pretty, she never even had to turn on the stove," Hushpuppy says in voice-over, and we half-glimpse a woman walk past pots of water that suddenly boil. Hushpuppy doesn't know if her mother is living or dead, but believes a flashing light out in the Gulf signals her presence. She frequently gazes across the water like F. Scott Fitzgerald's Gatsby on the dock staring out at the green light.
A levee separates the Bathtub from the rest of America, represented by a massive refinery, and exacerbates the flooding that afflicts Hushpuppy's home. Hushpuppy overhears grown-ups talking about the rising water line and a prehistoric animal called the auroch. The film then flashes to shots of crumbling glaciers and thawed-out animals. It's unclear whether global warming has released extinct monsters or Hushpuppy's imagination is running wild, but we see recurring images of stampeding beasts on a collision course with Hushpuppy's home. Assuming they're even real.
Wallis makes Hushpuppy a fierce, vivid personality, like "Game of Thrones'" Arya Stark on the bayou. Her delivery has the singsong inflections of a little kid, but the stillness of her presence holds the screen like the most skilled of adult actors. Since the film unfolds from Hushpuppy's perspective, the characters' loyalty to the Bathtub makes perfect sense. Schools and medical care seem nonexistent, but Hushpuppy clearly loves her home as a place of spontaneous parties, crab boils, and endless summers. Zeitlin imitates the tone poetry of Terrence Malick with semi-mystical voice-overs and lush photography. But where Malick captures nature at its most pristine, Beasts of the Southern Wild finds beauty in the squalor.
Over the course of the film, Hushpuppy journeys to find help for her ailing father, and perhaps locate her long-absent mother. Beasts of the Southern Wild has the structure of a coming-of-age story, but doesn't fully come together as one. The film builds to Hushpuppy's powerful epiphanies to love herself and control her darker feelings, but from the outset, she's so strong and self-reliant, the life lessons barely seem necessary.
The film walks a fine line between fetishizing poverty and celebrating a life free of modern constraints. Logically, we know that Hushpuppy might be better off in the long run to leave home for the amenities of civilization. But Beasts of the Southern Wild manages to persuade the audience to go with the gut feeling that she'll flourish in the Bathtub amid the flotsam and jetsam.