Magic Realism: 'Beasts of the Southern Wild'

Behn Zeitlin has made a gorgeous film that's not only technically impressive, but beams with optimism about the human condition

I’ve never been to Louisiana. Not New Orleans, not Baton Rouge, not Grand Isle, not any of it. I can’t begin to grasp what it’s like to live there, and I won’t pretend to know what Cajun culture means to the people who do. I’m a privileged Yankee, and I’ll never understand how everything changed after Katrina ripped it all apart.

But, I know this: Beasts of the Southern Wild is an incredible meditation about strength and fortitude in the face of drastic upheaval. It’s magic realism at its finest, a fiercely independent film that brilliantly harnesses the bold, enchanting power of a child’s imagination. I almost hesitate to praise it too much — or explain, in detail, why I loved it — for fear that I’ll ruin the surprise and delight that comes from watching it a first time. It’s that good.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Any discussion of Beasts, though, is impossible without acknowledging the awesome, wild-haired 6-year-old girl stomping around the center of it all. Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is her name, and she’s descended from undistilled Americana, a rambunctious successor to the likes of Huck Finn and Scout Finch. Hushpuppy lives in the Bathtub, a dirt-poor community on the Louisiana Delta that’s severed from society — ”the dry side” — by way of a levee. It’s a place built from chaos, cobbled together at the edge of the world with trash, scraps, folk tales, and booze. If the residents weren’t so congenial, the Bathtub would seem apocalyptic.

Thankfully, it isn’t. There are two sides to life in the Bathtub, of course — Hushpuppy’s father Wink (Dwight Henry) raises his little girl with tough love, lest she never learn how to make it on her own — but there’s nonetheless a romantic tint to it all. Their lot is hard enough to survive outside of society and hard enough to fight for the freedom to keep it up. They live in a precarious, yet perfect balance. As Hushpuppy puts it, in the world of the Bathtub, “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right.”

Again and again, that seems to be director Behn Zeitlin’s message: Everything has to fit together just right. After a cataclysmic storm wrecks the Bathtub, adding to the tremendous strain on Wink’s ailing body, it falls on Hushpuppy to restore the natural order of things. And so she goes out in search for her absent mother, the only person capable of putting the pieces of her life back into place. There’s a wonderful irony to that journey; although Hushpuppy looks to all the world to be a small, vulnerable child, she acts as overconfidently as a king. Beasts is entirely her story, but it’s firmly rooted in her unique, assured perspective.

Perhaps that’s why Zeitlin edges so close to tragedy without delivering any explicit judgments. After all, even a child as observant as Hushpuppy is ultimately self-involved. She relates to the world around her, but only as it compares to herself and her permanence. Beasts seems to play coy about the nasty details because it’s dedicated to that innocent’s perspective. It’s a world — not the world, but one that’s much more magical — as seen through Hushpuppy’s eyes.

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
starstarstarstarstar
Starring Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry
Rated PG-13
92 Minutes
Now Playing
Landmark E Street Cinema
Landmark Bethesda Row

As a result, watching Wallis navigate the demands of her character is nothing short of breathtaking. Her spunky charm radiates through both joy and pain, and she delivers a performance that would be shockingly poised and self-assured for any professional — and she does it as an eight-year-old amateur. Henry, a New Orleans baker with no previous acting experience, matches Wallis beat by beat, twitching with a raw, unbridled anger that plays off of her youthful confidence in wonderful ways. Together, they turn what would’ve been a great-looking movie with an unforgettable score into something that’s downright transcendent.

That’s the thing about Beasts: like the creatures of its title, it’s an awfully rare breed. Zeitlin’s made a gorgeous film that’s not only technically impressive, but also undaunted by the cynical impulses of its contemporaries. It just beams with optimism about the human condition. Beasts is Zeitlin’s tough and happy answer to reality, a place where truck beds turn into motorboats and strip clubs share names with ancient Greek paradise. Here, where monsters thaw from the tundra and cow to a little girl’s scowl, anything seems possible. It’s a miraculously different and profoundly resonant film. It all fits together like you’ve never seen before.