‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ finds magic on the outskirts of the bayou

Quvenzhané Wallis in 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' — Photo courtesy of Jess Pinkham
Quvenzhané Wallis in ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ — Photo courtesy of Jess Pinkham

There has been nothing like Beasts of the Southern Wild, and there will likely never be again. This is a movie almost beyond explanation. How does one capture the dreamlike escape of this story — its balancing act on the thin line between reality and fantasy? Exquisite, yes. Mind-bogglingly unique, yes. Pure, without a doubt.

Newly christened Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis plays Hushpuppy, a tomboy living a difficult life with her unusually distant father in a part of the Louisiana bayou known as the Bathtub. There’s never any overt explanation of how this community of people ended up on these southern shores, but they’re here, and they have no plans of leaving. The outside world lives far away, on the other side of the levees that keep back the United States. Hushpuppy and her network of friends live a simple, pure life, one filled with festivals, oddities and enjoyment. The adults drink the night away as the children play with sparklers. Roads seem to be forgotten, although plenty of people use the delta tributaries as a makeshift water highway.

As Hushpuppy lives this enjoyable, yet trying, existence, the winds of change begin to blow into the Bathtub. A major storm (Hurricane Katrina? Climate change?) causes havoc across the neighborhood, and many local folks head for the levee and the safety of dry land. Hushpuppy’s father, Wink (Dwight Henry), stays put. This is his world, and he refuses to leave.

As the storm brews, Hushpuppy continues to yearn for the solace of her mother, wondering why she’s been left with a father who doesn’t quite understand how to raise a child properly. The young girl sees the storm and its tumult as the perfect opportunity to run away from home in search of the mom she never knew. What she finds along the way is both beautifully cathartic and strangely mythological.

Dwight Henry and Quvenzhané Wallis in 'Beasts of the Southern Wild,' a story about a community in the Louisiana bayou — Photo courtesy of Jess Pinkham
Dwight Henry and Quvenzhané Wallis in ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild,’ a story about a community in the Louisiana bayou — Photo courtesy of Jess Pinkham

Director Benh Zeitlin, who adapted the screenplay with Lucy Alibar (based on Alibar’s stage play), is unrestrained in his creativity. Visuals cross the screen that are sometimes difficult to comprehend — many joyous, some quite sad. The dazzling displays are always treated with a real rawness, as if this were some documentary about a forgotten village. The metaphors are profound and intricate. Issues discussed run the gamut from identity to country to independence and the apocalypse.

Henry and Wallis, who share the screen for much of the film, hold the movie together with their realistic banter. He doesn’t understand his daughter, choosing instead to treat her like a son. She loves her home, but yearns for the embrace of a maternal figure. The locals, all of whom have an unspoken bond that ties them to one another, come off like a ragtag group of Lost Boys, as if this were a Peter Pan tale in Neverland. Everything is hyper-real; everything is hyper-fantastical.

Beasts of the Southern Wild received much love from the Oscar nominators, and after experiencing its allurement, it’s no wonder the praise has built for months. Hushpuppy and Wink are fascinating, indeed.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • Beasts of the Southern Wild

  • 2012

  • Directed by Benh Zeitlin

  • Written by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar; based on the play Juicy and Delicious by Alibar

  • Starring Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry

  • Running time: 93 minutes

  • Rated PG-13 for thematic material including child imperilment, some disturbing images, language and brief sensuality

  • Rating: ★★★★

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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