Beasts of the Southern Wild is probably not a movie for Mainstream Chick. It isn’t a straightforward narrative. It is more a modern fable, which some have compared with The Tree of Life for its blend of fantasy and realism. It is a simple little story though, and extremely well told. At its center is a little girl named Hushpuppy, played by 6-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis. She isn’t the usual cutesy kid. She is self-reliant and defiant, has a rich inner life and is filled with wonder about everything around her. She and her Dad live in the wild Louisiana bayou on a sliver of land of they call The Bathtub. They are poor as can be, existing in the middle of squalor, but the film doesn’t care about their poverty. It is all about their love of the life they have that is slipping from their grasp. It is about their hold on their normal.
Told through Hushpuppy’s eyes, it is the story of her entire world at risk. Early in the film, her teacher tells her that the glaciers are melting and soon her home will be underwater. And creatures called aurochs are going to return to the earth, released from the ice and eat her up. Something bad is going to happen. It is just a matter of time, she knows. Hushpuppy lives alone in a trailer next door to her Dad, expecting her Mom, who she is told “swam away”, to return any day. Her relationship with her Dad is anything but warm and cuddly. Mostly he is trying to toughen her up, make her self-sufficient. But when he disappears for a few days, and returns dressed in a hospital gown, it is clear that he isn’t well. And she knows in the way a 6-year-old knows that something is wrong, and reacts like the child she is, lashing out at him. But then an enormous Katrina-like storm comes, and most of her world is underwater. And FEMA-ish relief workers forcefully evacuate Hushpuppy and her extended clan from their land. But for them (and the audience at this point) going to the shelters is like being taken to another place in time. After being on their wild island, with their unfettered freedom to drink and yell and be as crazy as they want to be, the clean white place with tons of rules is a prison. And they soon find a way to escape this hell and go home, where all is not fine, but it is theirs.
In a lot of ways, Beasts of the Southern Wild is like a great ethnographic film, albeit fictional. The audience is plunked down into a world of zydeco-playing, backwoods, uneducated people who are clinging to their own little fading culture. But overlaid is the narration by the little feisty one who tells us what we are supposed to be seeing in all this craziness. It is a slice of a life we would never think could be all that interesting, and yet she keeps us entranced. And what is truly amazing about this film is that all the actors are untrained, and yet I would have to say they are some of the best performances I have seen in a long while, and from a first time director (Benh Zeitlin), too. Quvenzhané Wallis could hold her own against any of the young actresses of the day, and Dwight Henry who plays her Dad is heartbreaking. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and the Golden Camera award at Cannes, and I’d like to recommend this to everyone, but I know that it is too strange for many. It is another of those films that you need to go into with no expectations and be ready to just let it take you where it does. If you can’t do that, then skip it. If you can, be prepared for a real treat!