Visually stunning and boldly unorthodox, Beasts of the Southern Wild spins a fearsome and intoxicating tale of life beyond the borders of civilization, celebrating the sheer animal hardiness of the human species and raising troubling questions about what we sacrifice when we choose comfort and safety over courage and freedom.
The film's protagonist, a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), lives in circumstances that would cause polite society's hyperprotective, germophobic parents to break out in hives. She resides in a trailer elevated above the flood-prone ground, alone but for the company of her "pets" -- a motley collection of pigs, chickens and other farm animals with whom she shares her meals. Her mother is nothing more than a memory, but her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), is real enough -- he lives in his own ramshackle abode, closeby enough that Hushpuppy can hear him ring his makeshift dinner bell when "feedin' time" comes around.
If that sounds grim, it's not -- not really. Wink, Hushpuppy and the other residents of The Bathtub -- a lush, lawless bayou set beyond the levees of a New Orleans-like city -- wouldn't trade their life of Dionysian self-exile for anything as mundane as heat or hot water. They do what they want, live how they like, and celebrate more holidays than anyplace else on Earth. "We got the prettiest place on Earth," says Hushpuppy, who has absorbed her father's contempt for the people on the other side of the levee. "They're afraid of the water like a bunch of babies. They built the wall that cut us off."
Pretty is not the word that springs to mind at first, despite the breathtaking production design and cinematography. These are wild people, with weathered faces and bodies, surrounded by trash and detritus, and most of the adults are permanently attached to bottles of booze. But residents of our overscheduled, overanalyzed world are likely to envy their fiery passions, their untethered freedom and their visceral connection to the water. Wink has instructed Hushpuppy to light him on fire and send him out to sea if he's ever too sick to drink beer or catch catfish. The alternative, being hospitalized and "plugged into the wall," is just too humiliating to contemplate.
But if The Bathtub is a kind of paradise, albeit one few of us could or would endure, it is also gravely at risk. The local schoolteacher, if you can call her that, is worldly enough to know that a combination of city planning and melting ice caps spells extinction for their home, and sooner rather than later. She tells her young charges about the great predators that stalked their prehistoric ancestors and warns them that, like the cave men, they must resist the temptation to act like "pussies" when danger arises.
The lesson takes root in Hushpuppy's imagination, and as real dangers mount - starting when her father falls ill and mounting when a hurricane worthy of The Book of Genesis crashes through - she becomes haunted by a Yeats-ian image of rough beasts slouching toward The Bathtub.
Will they destroy her, or will the losses she suffers at this tender age only make her stronger? There's never much doubt, thanks in part to the revelatory performances by Wallis and Henry, who together form one of the least orthodox daughter-and-father combinations ever. She is wise and strong beyond her years, without ever sacrificing a shred of her childishness; he can be childish, too, and maddeningly so, but it's impossible not to admire his relentless efforts to equip his daughter to protect and provide for herself.
The director of "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is Benh Zeitlin, but he shares credit with the "independent filmmaking army" Court 13. I suspect that only a collective of people motivated by something other than the profit principle could have created such a strange and magical work. They have tapped a rich well of creativity, and in turn they have captured the imagination of this year's Sundance festivalgoers.
In a year when everyone at Sundance, up to and including festival founder Robert Redford, is looking for connections between the films on offer and the real-life war of 99% vs. 1%, it's inspiring to see a film that dares to imagine life outside the realm of rich and poor, haves and have-nots. The people of The Bathtub may share our air, our water, even our things - Wink's boat is really a severed pickup flatbed floating on a raft of empty barrels - but they don't share our relentless compulsion to get ahead. "I see that I am a little piece of a big, big universe," Hushpuppy says, "and that makes it right."