The non-fictional ravages of 2005's Hurricane Katrina and a dreamlike dose of magical realism collide with unusual gentility and lyricism in "Beasts of the Southern Wild," the feature debuts of writer-director Benh Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar (adapted from her play "Juicy and Delicious"). Because it was the winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, where the film also was awarded a well-deserved cinematography award, there is the temptation to suggest that audiences should level off their expectations. Spunky, deeply poignant at times, and beautifully carried by a miraculous performance from then-6-year-old newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis, the picture is yet another poster child for how much can be achieved with shoestring funds, and how the beauty of a good screenplay is more important than anything money can buy. At the same time, is it a game-changer of any kind, or just a very well-done snapshot of a life most likely nothing like our own? Comparisons to Terrence Malick, particularly in its ponderous voiceover and carefully composed images, are to be expected, though director Benh Zeitlin has a show-stopping film or two to go before he can rightfully place himself in such esteemed company.
For the people who live in "The Bathtub," there are two types of southern Louisianans: those that reside on the interior of the coast's levees, and those that exist perilously on the outside. Little Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her hard-drinking father Wink (Dwight Henry) are in the latter group, scraping by on a ruddy piece of marshland with two trailers to call a sort-of home. When a storm brews and the waters begin to risewe learn this is from the melting of South Pole's ice capsthe people of "The Bathtub" prepare to hold down their forts and stay afloat. As prehistoric creatures known as Aurochs are unleashed from their frozen slumber and begin to make their way north, Hushpuppy and Wink are forced to rely on each other even as they must face an uncertain future that may cruelly tear them apart.
Quvenzhané Wallis is what everyone who sees "Beasts of the Southern Wild" will be talking about, and there's a reason why. A non-professional who auditioned alongside some four thousand other little girls, Wallis is an unself-conscious dynamo of the kind you cannot train acting to. That would only mess things up. Using her own natural instincts and clearly helped to understand her role, the onscreen relationships, and the conflict of the story, Wallis comes bounding out of the underbrush of the Louisiana bayou in the early scenes and never fails to impress for one second thereafter. She and Dwight Henry, himself a shopkeeper with no acting experience to speak of, are the radiant soul of a film that otherwise might have wandered too far into cuteness. Wink and Hushpuppy are father and daughterit is only mentioned that the mother "swam away" one dayand theirs is a bond that shines through director Benh Zeitlin's uncompromising portrayal of a man who often loses himself in the bottle. Beyond that, is he physically sick? Mentally ill? When Wink disappears for a few days, only to return with a hospital band around his wrist, it is a spectral harbinger that hangs over what follows.
Lest one assume the movie is nothing but a downer filled with artsy images and highfalutin narration, think again. Okay, it does have these things, but it works, forever in the voice and point-of-view of Wallis' resourceful but heartbreakingly fallible Hushpuppy. Clad often in underwear and a wife-beater, her afro an unkempt thicket of dark hair, she is the eyes and ears of a land never captured quite like this on film before, a place of equal parts squalor and community, of majesty when one least expects it. If by the halfway mark it might seem as if the plot is starting to spin its wheels with not quite enough material to withhold a 91-minute running time, wait. The third act, finding Hushpuppy and three of her friends shoving off on a small barge and ending up at a sweaty nighttime bar, dazzlingly plays out. Could the empathetic, sweet-talking prostitute who takes a liking to Hushpuppy and dances with her be her missing mom? Probably notit's kept very open to interpretationbut their connection is undeniable for those fleeting moments, one that our heroine has been yearning for all along, but never gotten.
The final scenes of "Beasts of the Southern Wild" are powerful, approaching transcendence as Hushpuppy is faced with the greatest obstacle she's ever encountered. Life-changing but hopefully able to come out the other side, she has what her daddy gave her to survive in the world. And that, at last, is what the film is really aboutthe connectivity of all life in the universe, and the drive to survive. Hushpuppy has it. So do the rest of the people in "The Bathtub." And the stampeding Aurochs, when they finally arrive at their destination, have it, too. Standing face-to-face, man and beast look at each other and see themselves staring back.