For once, believe the hype. Since taking Sundance and Cannes by storm, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” had been a cause célèbre in film circles, one of those films lionized by filmmakers and critics but next to no one has actually seen.
The film sprang out of nowhere, with a 6-year-old lead actress and a novice leading man who was hired from behind the counter of a New Orleans bakery. The screenplay was dreamlike and strange, the production crew was inexperienced and the guerrilla grass-roots shoot was barely controlled chaos. Yet it’s one of the most singular and assured debuts in American film history. Now it can finally be experienced in all its impressionistic audio-visual glory.
And what glory it is. It fills the screen with visual poetry that plays like intimate documentary. The sheer primal force of its imagery is intoxicating yet never precious. The film is great art at its most artless.
The setting is the Bathtub, a low-lying Louisiana Gulf Coast island whose dirt-poor residents have a precarious, unfettered, off-the-grid life.
Our heroine and narrator is Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a wild child with a waterfall Afro. She lives with her tough-loving daddy, Wink (Dwight Henry, the baker). Life is hardscrabble, sometimes frightening, but not unhappy.
The film weaves in and out of people’s lives without a story, but in doing so tells thousands of stories.
Impressionistically, director/co-writer Benh Zeitlin shows us how people in the community spend their days. The kids play. So do some grownups – playing so hard they sometimes wake up under a table the next afternoon. Hushpuppy tells us the Bathtub has more holidays than anywhere else, and we see giddy kids and exuberant grownups running after dark, flares and sparklers pushing back the night.
At the school, Miss Bathsheeba (Gina Montana) warns her pupils that the sea level will surely rise, wiping away the community. Hushpuppy accepts the information, but doesn’t comprehend it. She’s just beginning to sort out the universe. “Me and my daddy,” she explains, “we’s who the earth is for.” Hushpuppy believes that the comforting voice in her head belongs to her departed mother, and that the Bathtub’s end will arrive when crumbling glaciers liberate giant prehistoric oxen from their icy tombs. Her visions are captured with so much yearning and inner urgency that you think maybe she’s right.
The film unfolds as a tapestry of vivid, unforgettable scenes. Wink’s fishing boat is a floating pickup flatbed. He teaches Hushpuppy to fish by catching catfish barehanded and then punching them unconscious. They inhabit his-and-hers shacks, scarred, patched hovels where she lights her own stove with a blowtorch.
Seriously ill, Wink devotes himself to toughening up his little girl to survive when he’s gone. If that means that she dines on a tin of fried cat food, so be it. He fights back against a monsoon by blasting the heavens with buckshot. Zeitlin shows his characters’ beleaguered, hopeful lives with uncommon respect. His film discovers a strange beauty in squalor and an admirable tenaciousness in holdouts who refuse to be airlifted to safety on the mainland.
Casting nonprofessionals in the film’s top roles heightens the feel of reality. Wallis is irresistibly watchable and emotionally compelling. Henry’s performance makes wild unpredictable hairpin swings through pride, anger, melancholy and delight. Through it all he’s so distinctively earthy you never feel he’s acting a part.
If one quality about this beautiful film impresses me more than another, it’s how little it tries to make a statement about anything. It hews to no aesthetic or political party line. It is simply life, seen through the kaleidoscope eyes of a brave, imaginative child.
There’s no predigested third-act climax, but a tapering off that feels poetically perfect. In the end, Hushpuppy and her fellow villagers carry makeshift banners as they march, determined and apprehensive, into the future. It’s a moment of stirring catharsis.
Unless I miss my guess, a lot of viewers will want to join the parade.