Reviewer's Rating: ★★★★
Physically and spiritually, the isolated Louisiana coastal community depicted in Beasts of the Southern Wild exists beyond America. At first glance, the people of this community called The Bathtub appear profoundly poor. Two of its residents, for instance, Wink and his motherless daughter, 6-year-old Hushpuppy, live in a camp seemingly raised from refuse. And Wink’s boat is a makeshift contrivance fashioned from the bed of an old pickup truck.
But south Louisiana’s bayous and wetlands and the Gulf of Mexico provide the people of The Bathtub an abundant harvest. These folks also know how to have a good time. A riotous party scene in this feature-film debut from New Orleans writer-director Benh Zeitlin bursts with the region’s noted joie de vivre.
A low-budget independent film that won prizes at the Sundance Film Festival and Cannes Film Festival, Beasts also features The Bathtub’s floating one-room school. The teacher’s lessons are more mystical than scientific.
“Y’all better learn how to survive,” she mindfully warns her students.
Although mainstream society likely perceives The Bathtub’s residents as primitive, these subsistence-level villagers understand the consequences of their imprint upon earth and water better than mainlanders. Even Hushpuppy, a little girl who lives in an old trailer perched above mud, chickens and pigs, knows that she’s just a small piece of a big world.
“The whole universe depends on everything fittin’ together just right,” she says. “If one piece busts, even the smallest piece, the entire universe will get busted.”
Hushpuppy, played with striking gravitas by Quvenzhané Wallis, a first-time actress from Houma, has an even bigger challenge than her home slipping into the gulf. Her daddy comes home one day wearing a hospital gown and bracelet ID.
“Why you wearing that dress?” Hushpuppy asks her disoriented father.
Dwight Henry, a New Orleans baker making his acting debut, portrays Wink with passion and humor. Despite his gruff exterior and apparent alcoholism, Wink loves his child and strives mightily to protect her.
At her end of the father-daughter relationship, Hushpuppy has no fear of her daddy. After he verbally lashes out at her, she strikes back instantly.
“I hope you die!” the enraged child screams. “And after you die, I’ll go to your grave and eat birthday cake all by myself!”
Apropos for south Louisiana, the movie includes a storm that floods The Bathtub. The storm and its aftermath are harrowing, but Beasts low-budget strings sometimes show, especially in the special effects/creatures department. Suggesting the creatures rather than executing them poorly might have been more effective.
Bad creatures aside, Beasts usually transports its audience. Even while Hushpuppy, Wink and their neighbors slog through the surrealistic journey the story sends them on, they remain faithful to their home on the gulf. The villagers’ determination to survive in the manner they’re accustomed to is embodied most of all in Hushpuppy, a ferociously focused little girl of invincible spirit.