Beasts of the Southern Wild is a movie that lends itself to multiple viewings, and for good reason. First of all, because it is a fantastic piece of modern cinema, calibrated sensitively for the anxieties of our times. There are natural disasters, uncertain futures, and private individuals fears of overbearing outside influences on their ways of life. All of this, filtered – or unfiltered, more aptly – through a child’s eyes, and filmed with a naturalistic and yet fantastical eye.
Hushpuppy lives with her father in a community known as The Bathtub. Located on the Gulf Coast in a near-future fraught with the imminent possibility of a catastrophic natural disaster, their community is one that lives fully in the moment, and values strength more than anything else. Her father rebuffs any normal paternal instincts, and instead of teaching her to love and grow, instills in here only the tools she needs to survive.
As the story unfolds, more and more setbacks befall The Bathtub. How the community responds and reacts to these issues further deepens the confusion and alienation that Hushpuppy feels. She is maybe seven years old, but already in her mind the disconnects are forming. She sees the universe as a machine connected with pieces of infinite size and importance, pieces that must all work together lest the machine break down. Can they be nurtured back from the brink? Can it all be broken so much that it can never come right again?
Her journey of discovery, and the means by which she comes to understand not only her place in the world, but the necessary items to make life and society work, is one filled with moments of odd grace and humor. What is best about this story and the way it is told it is that it fills in the details of the lives and attitudes of this people via their actions and interactions, rather than through speechs or the observations of outside observers. It is possible, for a great length of time during this tale, to view this collection of people as an ideal, something to be lauded. The slow revelation of the instability and wrongness at the core of this group, and the means of its exposure, is compelling.
Of course it’s not just the story that adds power to this narrative. Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy displays uncompromising emotional depths and ranges for someone so young. Putting a child at the center of such a story is a risk, as the wrong mix of precociousness or preciousness on their part could unravel the entire story. Wallis, though, is grounded and earnest, and her innocence and reality in the role helps to make sure that everything works splendidly. She is nearly eclipsed by Dwight Henry, who plays her father, Wink. Wink is a man of staggering rage and an odd kind of impotence. He espouses the virtues of strength and self-sufficiency, and yet he is powerless to even provide a propert role model for his own daughter, or fully comprehend his deficiencies. The nuances in his performance lend what at first seems to be a detestable and one-note character a blinding level of complexity.
Are there flaws in Beasts of the Southern Wild? Perhaps. The world it creates begs to be further explored, and yet the film tells as much as it needs to, and only when it wants to. There may be “plot holes,” though in reality they could just be a reflection of the uncertainty of your characters. In a world that feels so fully realized, these slight imperfections or niggling questions stand out almost purely out of a desire to be further immersed.
I have left out an entire subplot that plays heavily into the narrative, for reasons of wanting to maintain the wonder that belongs to it, but suffice to say that what at first seems heavy-handed and off-putting becomes, by the end, a fabulously executed grace note to your tale. With this one film and the successful execution of that through-line, Benh Zeitlin - who co-write the script with Lucy Alibar - has become a brand new talent to be watched closely and often.