Hushpuppy, an intrepid six-year-old girl, lives with her father, Wink, in "the Bathtub," a southern Delta community at the edge of the world. Wink's tough love prepares her for the unraveling of the universe; for a time when he's no longer there to protect her. When Wink contracts a mysterious illness, nature flies out of whack-temperatures rise, and the ice caps melt, unleashing an army of prehistoric creatures called aurochs. With the waters rising, the aurochs coming, and Wink's health fading, Hushpuppy goes in search of her lost mother.
Welcome to The Bathtub, a magical bayou in southern Louisiana that is the home of Hushpuppy and her daddy Wink.
Hushpuppy is six, a Pippi Longstocking in oversized galoshes, Dorothy with a waterlogged Chihuahua, a tiny Wild Thing who could have sprung from Maurice Sendak's forehead fully formed like Athena. She is a heroine with a thousand faces who has to confront awful truths about growing up: an impending storm that's threatening The Bathtub, her erratic daddy Wink's mysterious problems, and imaginary beasts that are sniffing out her weakest spots as the glaciers crumble. Hushpuppy is not precious or particularly precocious; she is an imaginative child with a serious face who is figuring out the world around her.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is in another world that we're fortunate to visit. It almost hurts to think about; so visceral that it is almost beyond rational thought. Similar to when a child tells you a story and anything can happen. A lost shirt talks in your mother's voice. The heartbeats of animals are a secret language to puzzle over. Sometimes you don't have words and can only shriek.
This is not a message movie. It's not supposed to say something political about Katrina - unless you want it to. It's not necessarily about poverty or education or alcoholism, although there are those things as well. There are no notes of condescension or voyeurism here. Hushpuppy and Wink don't see themselves as poor, they see themselves as incredibly lucky to live in the best place in the world. The story and characters are absolutely unique to their home, and, yes, the spirit of Louisiana is what drives the film from top to bottom, including its untrained stars Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry. Although it is necessary to discuss a film in terms of where it fits into society and history, it feels icky to put that sort of microscope on Beasts. It risks diluting the magic and making it into an exercise of cultural tourism, which it is not.
Beasts of the Southern Wild goes straight for the gooey guts and heart of being a child, when we're at the mercy of the people around us and our surroundings. Hushpuppy's home is in peril, her father is fading, and the government is trying to force her and the people she loves to leave everything behind. Wink and their self-made family teach her how to become a grown-up Beast and survive on her own when the time comes. Because it is coming.
This movie is worth all the awards its won, all the overwhelmed reviews, and all the chatter that began since its first Sundance screening. It is the type of movie that cinephiles dream of and what filmmakers should strive for. I wish I could refrain from hyperbole, but some movies deserve it.