Movie Review

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Dwight Henry (left) and Quvenzhane Wallis in "Beasts of the Southern Wild"

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Rated PG-13 for language, child imperilment, brief sensuality, disturbing images and thematic material. 1 hour, 33 minutes.
Publication date: Publication Date Jul. 13, 2012
Review by Susan Tavernetti
Released: (2012)

"Once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub," voices the 6-year-old narrator who wants to record her story for posterity. The little girl has a big imagination. And so does writer-director Benh Zeitlin, whose stunningly original first feature unspools like a dreamlike fable. Independent filmmaking doesn't come any better than this.

Newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis delivers a riveting performance as the child trying to make sense of her world situated on the wrong side of a southern Louisiana levee. She and her ailing father (Dwight Henry) struggle to stay afloat in The Bathtub, a floodplain populated with odd characters and littered with ramshackle housing -- a hurricane away from disaster. But the bayou community refuses to be displaced. Fiercely protective of their culture and each other, the colorful eccentrics -- with names including Wink and Walrus -- don't flinch in the face of Mother Nature or the government workers who try to evacuate them from the home that they love.

Zeitlin's gift is the ability to pack social commentary within a unique voice and look. He and co-writer Lucy Alibar address the difficulties of preserving a people and their culture in post-Katrina Louisiana. Whether learning how to "beast" a crab by cracking it and sucking out the meat, or sputtering across the delta in a jerry-built boat, Hushpuppy belongs to a community that will captivate your attention.

Experiencing this subculture from the young girl's perspective allows us to enter a world of wonder. Looking for her father, Hushpuppy mutters: "Daddy could have turned into a tree or a bug. There wasn't any way to know." Clearly the fabric of the universe unravels with her father's declining health. A storm approaches. The ice caps melt, releasing primordial aurochs -- the beasts advancing within Hushpuppy's mind. The rains come. Waters rise. The coming-of-age story forces the feisty little girl to sink or swim.

Similar to Zeitlin's award-winning short, "Glory at Sea," the film's imagery has a haunting quality, especially once the characters become unmoored. The 2012 Sundance Film Festival recognized Ben Richardson's cinematography and awarded the Grand Jury Prize to the movie, which has a local angle: The San Francisco Film Society/Kenneth Rainin Foundation supported the production with two grants.

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" is a must-see movie of rare vision. And the defiant brown eyes of Quvenzhane Wallis burn with a warrior spirit that you won't soon forget.