I can’t remember the last time I saw a film where a six-year-old little girl flexed her muscles at the camera and let out a defiant scream—probably because there never has been one. Between Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom and Pixar’s Brave, it’s been a great season for precocious, strong-willed heroines. But Beasts of the Southern Wild’s Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis)—a resourceful, motherless sprite in rain boots and underpants—is the strongest, and most inspiring, of the bunch.
Hushpuppy lives with her loving, if volatile, father (Dwight Henry) in the swamps of Louisiana called The Bathtub. Theirs is a happy, but rugged existence. Post-Katrina, the levees have been raised to keep the water out of New Orleans and in The Bathtub. But the whole village shares Hushpuppy’s defiance. They’ll be damned if their huts and makeshift modes of transportation (Hushpuppy’s dad has a fishing boat made out of the bed of a pickup truck) will be taken away from them—and they come together as a community to preserve their way of life.
This ravishing debut from director Benh Zeitlin exists on a plane between horror story and fairy tale; between gritty realism and magic realism: If you crossed A Winter’s Bone with Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are (adding perhaps a dash of Pan’s Labyrinth), you’d come close. But the film has a language, and a transporting quality, all its own.
There are moments of keen, almost visceral beauty, as in a scene—depicted on the film’s posters—where Hushpuppy runs through the Bayou with a fistful of sparklers. Beyond that, I felt as though I could feel the mud between my toes, smell the damp swamp air, and taste the fried catfish. I shuddered as the ominous storms that threatened Hushpupppy and her father’s very survival pounded against their flimsy roof.
On one level, Beasts of the Southern Wild could be construed as a cautionary tale about global warming—Zeitlin cuts to images of melting polar ice caps to drive home his point. But more than that, it’s a story about survival. The residents of The Bathtub see themselves as part of a huge ecosystem—they are unsentimental about life and death. “We’re all just meat,” Hushpuppy’s teacher tells her (this is not meant to be cruel, merely sensible). Hushpuppy is taught to love animals—she holds birds up to her ear to listen to their heartbeats—but also to kill them for survival.
I wish I could recommend Beasts of the Southern Wild for children, but the film is probably a bit too rough. Hushpuppy’s father gets sick; animals and people die; the one hurricane that sets off the action is particularly terrifying.
Nonetheless, Hushpuppy is a heroine for the ages, There’s a scene, a great scene that will particularly resonate with local viewers, where Hushpuppy is taught to eat a crab in a bar. One of the villagers tries to show her the proper way, by rolling back the apron from the shell.
“Beast it!” her father yells at her.
“Beast it!” the ragtag group of bar denizens agree.
And she takes the crab, smashes it two, and flexes those puny, wonderful muscles.