A raw look at reality collides with a touch of fantasy in Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar's Beasts of the Southern Wild. The film follows a fiercely independent six-year-old, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), who is trying to make her way in a bayou community called "the Bathtub".
Hushpuppy is not your average little girl. She cooks for herself, takes care of her animals and freely roams the swampy land she calls home. Her terminally ill alcoholic father is raising her to be as self-sufficient as possible, knowing that he may not be around to take care of her for long.
The screenplay was an adaptation of a play by Lucy Alibar called Juicy and Delicious. In the play, the lead was cast as a little boy even though the script was a reflection of the writer's own relationship with her father. In the film, Hushpuppy's father, Wink (Dwight Henry), is raising her as a tough man would raise a son in an unforgiving world. Without having seen the play, it's really no wonder that the choice to cast Hushpuppy as a girl has such a powerful effect.
It's rare to find such an uncompromising female lead in film as the character Hushpuppy, and especially for her to be a child. If Hushpuppy had been a little boy this could have been read as yet another coming of age story, albeit early. Instead, the gender roles imbue the film with another dimension. Hushpuppy's father is raising her as he would a little boy and with a real sense of haste given his shaky health.
Wink discourages community members from babying his daughter and, in his arguably misguided way, teaches her how to survive on her own. The relationship between the two conveys a great deal of love but also the sense of confusion that a child experiences when dealing with a parent who has communication issues.
Wink cares deeply for his child. We see this in his quest to teach her how to fish, to build up her spirits up by flexing her muscles, and his unwillingness to let medical professionals talk about his condition in front of her. While there is no question that Wink loves his daughter, that love is shrouded within his incredibly gruff exterior.
A story about an unconventional family, Beasts is beautiful for many reasons, but most poignant is the unbridled spirit of this little girl. That spirit is seen in her blaze of hair as much as her determination to lead her friends toward a great escape.
The crescendo of emotion in the film doesn't happen when the characters are throwing buckets and canisters around their dilapidated home in bouts of anger, but when they finally surrender to these emotions and let themselves break down. Only when the characters weep has Hushpuppy made the transition into some semblance of adulthood, speaking to the writers' feelings on what constitutes growing up.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a powerful film about a young girl trying as best as she can to adapt to love, loss and abandonment amidst her ever-changing circumstance.