At home in the Bathtub, a marshy swampland off the coast of southern Louisiana, 6-year-old Hushpuppy lives by a simple code: “When you’re small, you gotta fix what you can.” It’s a fitting mantra for Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” a stunning debut that finds its dandelion-haired heroine fighting rising tides and fantastic creatures in a mythic battle against modernity. Despite limited means, Zeitlin and his Court 13 collective conjure an expansive world in which to set this richly textured bayou pastoral, yielding an emotionally wrenching if somewhat meandering parable likely to register strongest among critics and cineastes.
Adapted from co-writer Lucy Alibar’s play “Juicy and Delicious,” the film asserts its individuality even as it finds its place within a broader artistic tradition, evoking everything from literature (“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”) to painting (Theodore Gericault’s “The Raft of the Medusa”). Perhaps the most obvious cinematic comparison will be to the early work of Terrence Malick, given “Wild’s” poetic voiceover and the way Zeitlin splits his attention between the film’s natural surroundings and the narrative at hand. More influential still is Robert Flaherty’s “Louisiana Story,” in which a young Cajun boy observes oil drillers commandeering the canals near his home. Half a century after Flaherty’s eco-conscious statement, unsightly refineries flank the coast, leaving a string of small islands vulnerable to flooding.
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It is this zone that constitutes the Bathtub, an almost primordial wilderness cut off from the rest of Louisiana by a long wall of levees. Here, an unapologetically uncivilized crowd of humans live alongside the animals that sustain them, blissfully disconnected from their resource-burning neighbors to the north. When judgment comes in the form of rising tides and vengeful beasts, however, this mystical realm independent of government and law will be the first to feel the consequences.
The children face the greatest danger. Among them, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis, possessed of incredible poise and almost feral intensity) already fends reasonably well for herself, sharing a sort of treehouse trailer with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), who hasn’t been the same since Hushpuppy’s mom “swam away” years earlier. Wink can be cruel at times, as when he hits Hushpuppy after her attempt to prepare her own dinner sends part of their ramshackle home up in flames, but his principal concern is for the girl’s safety. Once the rains come, he becomes her fierce protector, a dynamic that radically differentiates the film from others that see only cruelty and abuse in black families, and one that establishes the emotional backbone for the picture.
Every culture has its flood myth, and with this project, Zeitlin and Alibar create a new American fable all the more potent in the wake of Katrina (a natural disaster that also factored prominently into Zeitlin’s 2008 short film, “Glory at Sea”). But the imagery here — including a raft fashioned from an empty truck bed — is radically different from the post-hurricane news footage by which Americans witnessed so many lives destroyed and neighborhoods left underwater. These outcasts, with their grizzled faces and missing teeth, are prepared for the flood, building floating houses on which they intend to wait until the tide recedes and staging valiant attacks against the manmade levees.
Since the flood represents an abstract sort of menace, the film introduces yet another threat in the form of giant aurochs, prehistoric boar-like creatures with sharp tusks and carnivorous appetites released from their Ice Age prison by eroding glaciers. Armed with collaborator Ray Tintori’s atmospheric footage of these spectacular beasts, Zeitlin repeatedly cuts back to the aurochs’ advance, adding a much-needed layer of tension to a story that otherwise tends to drift from the father-daughter relationship at its core.
Another motif — namely, the restless handheld camerawork that characterizes the film’s painterly compositions — underlines the instability of Hushpuppy’s existence, while a resonant score lends real dignity to her odyssey. Mass media have gone a long way to standardize our idea of what a house or community should look like, yet Zeitlin suggests a radical alternative based on celebration of life and coexistence with nature, even if it means living in shacks cobbled together from other people’s trash. The magic of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” comes in marrying the specifics of this odd regional enclave with a familiar allegorical form. Like a tattoo imprinted on the back of your head, the film’s message has always been with us; we just needed someone else’s eyes to see it.