Six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Willis) lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in the Bathtub, a damp, wild, insular place at what feels like the edge of the world (but is more likely the edge of New Orleans). She tends to their chickens and pigs, goes fishing with her father, and draws creatures on cardboard boxes in her house — her own scrappy house, standing on crooked stilts like something out of a dark fairytale. Her father has his own little house across the way; their friends are just a boat trip across the water, always ready to celebrate one of the Bathtub’s nameless holidays.
Fear colors a lot of Hushpuppy’s existence — her father is ill; a storm could come any day; her teacher told her about the aurochs, huge, mean creatures from ages past, and she imagines them breaking free from icy prisons and racing to her home — but what fear looks like to her and to us is something entirely different.
Gently, beautifully, Beasts of the Southern Wild weaves two stories: there’s Hushpuppy’s story, an apocalyptic and personal coming-of-age about a little girl holding her fears close and coming to terms with them; and then there’s the story we bring to the movie. In that story, we’re the rest of the world, the voice in the helicopter telling the Bathtub’s residents that they’re in a mandatory evacuation zone, or the well-intentioned outsiders who see only extreme poverty and dirty bare feet, and want to clean up the kids (Hushpuppy has a tiny girl gang) and send them to school.
It’s to director Benh Zeitlin’s credit that Beasts of the Southern Wild avoids completely romanticizing or condescending to its characters and their poverty. For the most part, Beasts veers between different kinds of reality with love and zeal, building a very real, very messy, very beautiful world in the Bathtub while giving Hushpuppy an intensely thoughtful, emotional internal life that manifests in the way she looks at her father — all anger one minute, all love the next — or picks up a startled chick to listen to its heartbeat. Hushpuppy wants to get her finger on the pulse of the world, to understand the way things fit together and clash and make room for a little girl in a lost place.
Beasts has the contradictory, inevitable, glorious feel of a myth, a folk tale about a place that never was but is everywhere, in a time that’s entirely now and could have been decades ago — its heroine owns a place somewhere between Huck Finn and Winter’s Bone’s Ree Dolly in the pantheon of cultural memory. The plucky, perfect, bittersweet score twines with the images of run-down buildings and floating havens; the shaky handheld camerawork mirrors the unstable nature of Hushpuppy’s home; beauty and disarray coexist as neatly and precariously as the small community and the deadly water that rushes in after a storm. A carefully crafted rhythm loops through Beasts, stringing together images, characters and scenes, building them up and shaking them loose again like a song, or a symphony.
But the film couldn’t have been what it is without Willis, with her stony stare and high-pitched battle cry, her set shoulders and careful expression, earnest and curious but wary and protective. Hushpuppy knows she belongs in the world, and she doesn’t bow to it just because it’s bigger than she is. When she dives into the water, leading her girls on a quest, you know she’s getting back out again. The water isn’t taking anything away this time. It’s her water, her Bathtub, her father — and her story.
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD: Directed by Benh Zeitlin. Written by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar. Cinematography, Ben Richardson. Music, Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin. Editors, Crocket Doob and Affonso Goncalves. Starring Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2012. PG-13. 93 minutes. Four Stars.