Films based on real disasters are double-edged swords. On the one hand, they provide catharsis for a nation dealing with the aftermath. On the other, the films can become saccharine, manipulative pieces stuffed with self righteousness. Beasts of the Southern Wild is neither of these. Instead, it uses its characters and setting to provide context to an area of the country and a catastrophe that remains so fresh in our minds. The fact that it does so with such delicacy and grace is what makes it remarkable.
Beasts focuses on Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a resilient little girl living in a poverty-stricken, sub-bayou community known as the Bathtub with her father (Dwight Henry). What Hushpuppy lacks in modern amenities she makes up for in toughness and imagination: she believes deeply in a connection between all things in the universe; meanwhile, her father trains her for survival in abject poverty with extremely tough but incredibly deep love.
The residents of the Bathtub are cut off from civilization by a giant levee, and it seems they wouldn’t have it any other way. They’ll stay there come hell or high water, as we learn when the latter comes, literally, after a major storm (you assume it’s Katrina) leaves their island flooded. Even when they’re forcibly moved to a shelter with modern medical care that’s desperately needed by Hushpuppy’s father, the colorful crew of neighbors fight their way back to the Bathtub.
There’s little by way of plot in this movie – only a few major events mark the time – but too many distractions would sully the beauty here. There’s a gentle poetry to Hushpuppy’s narration and the way Wallis acts and speaks on screen. She is the heart, soul and backbone of this film, and it’s surprising to see how well a virtual toddler pulls it off. Henry, likewise, turns in a stellar performance. Where you’d see other father characters as abusive, he comes off as loving.
The world that director/writer/composer Behn Zeitlin creates in the Bathtub is so realistic that its tough-luck charm makes the viewer identify with the people who call it home. It’s curious, then, that part of Zeitlin’s vision is to use aurochs – prehistoric bison-like beasts – as a metaphor for…well, it’s hard to tell. We know that Hushpuppy feels a deep connection to nature and all the elements of the universe, but visions of the aurochs confuse the straightforward and frank tone of the rest of the movie. It’s as if Zeitlin is channeling his inner Terrence Malick, and it’s unnecessary, because the movie works so well without the distraction.
Despite the unnecessary diversion into a fantasy land, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a wonderful film experience and one that should be talked about when awards season comes around.