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Beasts of the Southern Wild

July 7, 2012
Beasts of the Southern Wild

Once, there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub. Children live in a liminal space, where the real world is too big for their little hands to quite grasp properly — or at least they’re more aware of this fact than we are — and fairy-tale formulas like this help them make sense of it. Beasts of the Southern Wild transports us back into this world in the midst of a cataclysm. It is wonderful and terrible, heartwarming and heartbreaking, all at the same time. It defies easy description, and I’m confident that I haven’t seen anything else like it.

There really in a Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy) — a little girl by that name — and she does live with her daddy, Wink (Dwight Henry). The Bathtub is a small squatters’ community outside the southeastern levees of New Orleans, which they refer to as “the dry side”. They’re a tough, resilient bunch with a distinct identity not reducible to the usual cajun clichés. The two most important things to learn are how to survive, and to take care of those smaller and less able than yourself.

Hushpuppy and Wink live in a couple cobbled-together “houses” — one for each of them — amid a passel of various chickens and pigs and other animals that are both pets and food. They go floating around the bayou in the bed of an old pickup truck lashed to a bunch of empty plastic barrels and with an outboard motor slapped on. Wink is hardly what any of us would call a fit parent, but it’s what they have and so they make do.

There is a fight; the balance of the universe is thrown off; a storm comes and the Bathtub floods. Luckily, lots of people around here have their houses way up high, since floods do tend to happen around here. But this time the water isn’t going away; the balance of the universe has been thrown off. The poles are melting, releasing a herd of aurochsen — those fierce terrors of caveman days — from their icy prison. Nothing, it seems, will ever be the same.

Director — and nearly everything else — Benh Zeitlin shoots with a handheld camera, but with an actual purpose beyond cost-cutting for once. Nothing ever sits quite still, or quite fits into the frame right; Hushpuppy’s world is bigger than she can comprehend or get a solid handle on. We can fill in a lot of the missing parts, but our understanding coexists with hers and we slip fluidly back and forth between them. We know that the storm is Hurricane Katrina, though she doesn’t; we know what the dark spiderweb of veins peeking out from Wink’s wifebeater mean, though she doesn’t; we can fill in all that we know, but we can also fill in using Hushpuppy’s logic, and both worlds exist together on the screen.

The constant in both worlds is Hushpuppy, and it’s Wallis’ surprisingly powerful performance that binds everything together. There’s already awards buzz around her, but some of it should also go to Henry for pulling off such a confoundingly irreducible role as Wink. And then there’s Zeitlin not only for directing and writing the script with playwright Lucy Alibar, but for the fantastically original score he worked on with Dan Romer.

The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right, and here — for a short while — everything does.

Worth It: definitely.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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