A gumption-crazed little girl survives what looks like post-industrial living in Beasts of the Southern Wild (tickets and showtimes here). She’s so cute that she’s even called “Hushpuppy.” And if you don’t count Hushpuppy, this Faulkner-meets-Shirley Temple film is less hypnotic than it seems to the Sundance audience, or to the Cannes jury that awarded it the Camera d’Or.
Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) lives in a waterside squatters’ camp called “The Bathtub”. There, she is schooled in the facts of life by a hardnosed teacher in a makeshift classroom. It’s a dog eat dog world, and “every animal is made of meat…Your ass is made of meat.”
The teacher in this swamp-town hitches up her clothes to displays a $200 custom-made tattoo on her thigh depicting some kind of mythical whangdoodle. That’s all the proof Hushpuppy needs that ice-locked beasts of the Stone Age could rise again. Hushpuppy has reveries of glaciers melting. She foresees tusked, pig-like monsters slowly advancing. As they come, they trod on miniatures of buildings, like Godzilla.
Hushpuppy tries to bond with her ailing dad Wink (Dwight Henry). We judge that he’s mortally ill from the hospital gown and the plastic bracelet he wears when he turns up after an absence. He returned to The Bathtub just in time. The muddy waters are rising. The government (hiss) orders the villagers to go to a shelter. That’s when a storm hits and inundates the town.
Beasts of the Southern Wild’s impressionistic self-seriousness is sweetened by Wallis’ own feist. She strides purposefully through the ooze in her oversized white rain boots. The rapport of daughter and father is unforced. But Wink tries to increase his daughter’s toughness. He barks at her to flex her skinny arms, to display her muscles through the oversized basketball shirt she wears. You can put Hushpuppy on the list with Princess Merida and Katniss: emerging strong heroines in a cinema made for a boys-only club.
Bathtub has the funk of the waterfront in an old Popeye cartoon; they have impromptu fireworks shows there, and a town crier to bring the news. One floating house bristles with sharp sticks, as if someone designed a barn for a giant porcupine.
Beasts was loosely based on a play titled “Juicy and Delicious.” Thus the movie includes some lowdown food-porn. If Bathtub looks like a place where the end of the world happened already, nothing interferes with the idea that Louisiana is all about comfort food. Boiled crabs are served to Hushpuppy, who doesn’t know how to eat such creatures. Wink shouts at her to tear the crab apart. The whole room cheers at her when she does; it’s an adult initiation over seafood.
And the movie visits an off-shore platform/dime a dance bar/chicken stand, where Hushpuppy gets a meal of peeled gator tail dredged in egg and cooked in hot grease. Fats Waller’s “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” burbles away from the next room as the frowsy slip-clad ladies shuffle. Waller sounds as mysterious here as he did accompanying the Radiator Lady’s two-step in Eraserhead.
Earlier, after a flood, Wink and Hushpuppy go for a float. They have a boat made of the butt end of a pickup truck, with some plastic barrel pontoons and a motor. The sights they see aren’t pretty. A drowned, bloated steer, headfirst and twisted along the littered bank, stands in for the human dead who would be scattered after the flood.
This junk-boat of Wink and Hushpuppy’s is a dream vessel, like the good ship L’Atalante. You can’t accuse Beasts of lacking realism, anymore than you could charge Jean Vigo of not making a strict documentary about the canals of northern France.
But aside from these moments of reverie, first time feature director Benh Zeitlin takes a studiously precious approach to all of this lower-depths life. Too often Beasts is a low-budget, marsh-staged version of Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. The movie is relentlessly, self-consciously elemental. Wallis is a very appealing young actress, but her character is a daughter of the swamp in the same simplistic way that old movie characters were sons of the soil.