By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Director Benh Zeitlin’s iconically independent “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” about a little girl’s search for identity, meaning and security in a remote section of the Louisiana Bayou referred to as the Bathtub, is a haunting splash of poetic reality. It is an endearing, intelligent and searing shard of sociology, artistically pungent with eye-opening truths.
Through the often frightening, always surprising adventures of the ultra-precocious Hushpuppy, magnificently portrayed by six-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis, we are reminded of one of America’s richest diversities: our poverty. Pick a region, any region. There, the inadvertent outgrowth of its affluence, you’ll find a uniquely parallel squalor.
Caught in this economic perdition, hardly more sophisticated than a poker game despite all the rhetoric that would have you believe otherwise, Hushpuppy lives in an odyssey of survival. Already schooled in the class warfare jargon about her kind of people and those less enlightened sorts living on the other side of the levee, she also has her own theories.
It’s a fantasy combination of pontifications she’s learned from her nonconformist dad, Wink, a perennially agitated egocentric played by Dwight Henry, and the local, self-appointed teacher/interpreter of Mother Nature, Miss Bathsheeba (Gina Montana). We figure if she can break from her circumstances she’s destined to be a Darwinian scholar.
The narrator, she delivers her raison d’etre, the world according to Hushpuppy, in a charming patois, at once confident and anxious. Mom is gone, attended by a legend built of snippets of lore from Dad and her own fashioning. Giving the tale a mystically engaging aura, a gray area flourishes between actual events and Hushpuppy’s imaginings.
The fierce stampeding of aurochs, prehistoric beasts that don’t take ‘nothin’ from nobody,’ acts as the chorus, an ideological interpretation of what has shaped and controls our destiny, whether in the Bathtub or out of it. She mixes their attributed dominance with visions of an apocalyptic comeuppance when the polar ice caps eventually melt.
It’s a lot for a six-year-old to take upon herself. But little Quvenzhané adeptly intersperses her character’s revelatory philosophy with a smattering of tantrums and outbursts, helping balance and make credible the wiser than her years Hushpuppy. In the bargain, along with the economic assailment, she takes us back to a universal experience.
It’s childhood, where all things are possible. And if you were lucky, it brimmed with hope and dreams of glory…rich or poor. Thus the immersed observer is sure to flash on his or her own youthful epiphanies, delivered here like flickers of sunlight to a forest floor. Gushing with discovery, Hushpuppy is an ambassador of the human spirit.
And her story is an equal opportunity muckrake, not only confirming the fears of liberals, but also managing to guiltlessly entertain the sainted One Percent. You see, Wink and his ilk, to put it in polite parlance, wish no help from anyone, especially the bleeding hearts seeking to relocate them. Like Garbo, they just want to be left alone.
All of which gets the morally sympathetic viewer to thinking about the multiple-edged conundrum faced by the American social service system. We anguish with inquiry: Is it possible to help? How can we help? Should we help? Can we help without it becoming someone’s disingenuous, profit-making scheme? How can we be good human beings?
Told like a fable, with wisps of a child’s spontaneous whimsies coloring the narrative, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” has a documentary lilt to it, the two plot-lines essentially vehicles for its cultural exploration. Wink is sick, and, being wise enough to know what that might mean, Hushpuppy sets out to find a lost Mom known only through anecdote.
Shades of Katrina, the scenario is punctuated with forebodings of storm, the chiefly psychological preparation consisting of visiting with fellow Bathtub-ites and engaging in informal, lifestyle-justifying pep talks. There appears to be little racial discrimination among them, the big separation in class dictated by the levee. Self-determination is king.
Miss Wallis, only five years old when she auditioned for Hushpuppy, exudes a natural talent and amiability rarely seen since Shirley Temple graced the screen. And, as is the case with the other, mostly unknown players, she imbues the landscape with freshness and a remarkable integrity. It’ll be interesting to see how she fares in her next outing.
Both a pity and a benefit, this is a small film, able to impart what only the rarest of mainstream movies can, but likely to be overlooked despite its 2012 Sundance Jury Prize. So the hope is that survival of the fittest applied to cinema leads to a more renowned award at the Oscars, making “Beasts of the Southern Wild” a perfectly natural selection.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild,” rated PG-13, is a Fox Searchlight Pictures release directed by Benh Zeitlin and stars Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry and Gina Montana. Running time: 93 minutes
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