Beasts of the Southern Wilds Magical and Thought-Provoking

Directed by Benh Zeitlin
Fox Searchlight, PG-13, 93 mins.
* * * * *

Hushpuppy is nobody's meat! 

The year is 2005, the setting The Bathtub, a small and insular bayou community that lies beyond the New Orleans levies. It’s called The Bathtub for a good reason–its marshes, tidal streams, swamps, and steamy weather are the watery barriers that define life in a sump hole that seldom sees or trusts outsiders. The residents depend upon the waters to provide the crawfish, alligators, and seafood that sustains them. The Bathtub’s also a place of unimaginable poverty and squalor where skin color is irrelevant­–black and white intermingle (and cohabitate) freely in a slice of mud and water that time forgot. There is no town as such, just an old cargo box converted into a seedy bar by Jean Baptiste (Levy Esterly), a wreck of a white guy who might be 40 and might be 70. The Bathtub is where dreaming off island involves staring across the bay at a distant lighthouse beam if you’re a child, and an occasional boat trip to the roadhouse that’s there for a visit to cheap hookers and expensive liquor if you’re an adult.

The Bathtub is also where six-year-old Hushpuppy–the amazing Quvenzhan√© Wallis–lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry). Wink is a single father whose wife skipped the island when Hushpuppy was an infant. He’s bitter–Hushpuppy lives in her mother’s shack amidst the moldering remains of her things­–and he has no idea of how to raise a child­–a rope connects their separate residences, which he rings to tell Hushpuppy it’s time “to come to eats.” Hushpuppy’s major role model is Miss Bathsheeba (Gina Montana), the local teacher who is half educator and half juju mistress. Her science lessons include the message that everything and everybody in natural realm is “meat.” But Hushpuppy needs no encouragement to imagine; she has a gift for reading nature’s signs, for envisioning the interconnectivity of ecosystems, and for bringing to life fantasy images. Her senses tell her that something very bad is about to happen, an inkling she gets by listening to clams, feeling leaves, and imaging the awakening of extinct aurochs. She’s right on two levels–her father is seriously ill and Hurricane Katrina is about the make The Bathtub overflow and wash away the little that locals had.

This is an astonishing film that takes us to both physical and imaginary worlds we could not enter on our own. It freely mixes recent history and magical realism as if it were literary sociology. Wallis is a revelation, a child who can make her six-year-old face look as old as creation, or cast a fierce look that stops adults in their tracks. I would yield to those who might criticize the caper-like feel of the last 20 minutes of the film, but the rest is so good that I simply didn’t care. It raises all manner of questions about community, survival, and caring. It raises two big ones: Is it kind or cruel to force people to live in the 21st century? Has humankind authored its own ecological demise? (Think an intelligent version of Waterworld.)

This amazing film has no stars–Henry was discovered running a bakery across the street from director Zeitlin’s casting office and Wallis was literally pulled off the street. It’s a subject that sounds odd to some and the topic of an endangered child is off-putting to others. Do not be deterred; this may be the film of the year. Moreover, it does not ask for your approval–merely that you think about The Bathtub and the big issues raised by simple people who may have a better take on the planet that you. Are the aurochs coming? --Rob Weir

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