The lovely independent film “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is set in the near future when the polar ice caps have begun to melt, the Earth is being slowly flooded and the civilized world has constructed giant levees to stave off inevitable destruction.
Many of these adults will know what it is to survive nature and the struggle of living with it. But like the film’s young hero, Hushpuppy, generations will be born with no memory of a world without water everywhere. For them, every move they’ve ever made has and will have an impact on the natural world around them.
Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a wondrous, poetic, beautiful film about all the things humans can do when we stop acting like people afraid of nature and start living like brave beasts that become one with the world. It’s about color, light and discovery. It’s about being loved by the world, loving it back and understanding how to truly live. It’s about facing the other beasts of the world, and doing it head on.
Doing this with such strength, conviction and attitude is Hushpuppy, played by the young, first time actress Quvenzhanè Wallis. Wallis was only 5 at the time of filming, now 8. Boy does she have the spark. Standing scrawny, but tall with a commanding pout, she owns the screen. She’s capable of it because her character believes so strongly that her actions and responsibilities have consequences on the entire universe. Hushpuppy bonds with the world, and Wallis bonds as deeply with us.
She lives on a newly formed island in the Deep South known only as The Bathtub. The ragged shacks, dirty streets and wild vegetation remind us of the images immediately after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. But politics and history are the furthest thing from this film’s mind. This community is full of life and beauty.
The camera bobbles around like an excitable child, looking up at the natural world with a short attention span to all the colors, light and details exploding from the frame. It’s as if we’re sharing Hushpuppy’s innocent perspective. We can only pin down a few specifics of what we see, but this place is home.
Contrast that with the pallid white and blue lighting of the “civilized world.” Never has such a place looked so foreign, and never has a little girl looked so lost in a cute powder blue dress. Hushpuppy and her father Wink (another first time actor, Dwight Henry) end up in the hospital after a horrible storm has nearly drowned The Bathtub. Wink has been coughing blood, and in a desperate attempt to find dry ground so he can recover, ends up blowing up a levee wall.
The heartbreaking beauty of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is that, in her naïve innocence, Hushpuppy feels responsible for her father’s illness. She was angry at him, and his sickness seemed to send the rest of the planet into imbalance. For her, everything is connected, and she can’t let the world fall into ruin any more than she can allow her father to die.
Hushpuppy observes death and life with practical metaphors. Her childlike pronunciation achieves a poetry of its own that’s typically absent from gritty indies such as this. To her, being put on life support means being plugged into a wall. Or before there were people, all the beasts in the “Iced Age” were strong and didn’t act like “pussies.” Wallis grants the movie such authenticity by just acting her age.
And “Beasts’s” authenticity is its greatest gift. It views a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world of sorts, and yet it maintains a rustic, at home flavor that feels wondrous and fantastical. Zeitlin has the film’s tone in the right place. There are some gruesome images of poverty and the violence of Mother Nature, but it doesn’t drown the audience in depression or inundate us with parables and winning spirits. Like the tough-love fire in Wink’s eye as he yells at Hushpuppy to eat her crab not with a knife but with her bare hands, the movie has a hard-knock pluck that inspires and moves us in every moment.
It forces us to use our bodies and our hearts, not our tools of logic, to appreciate its charms. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” will demand some patience and strength to appreciate its vivid, visceral charms. But those who embrace their wild side will discover a whole new, beautiful world.