In Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, the wild things are in a place known as the Bathtub, a remote stretch of the Louisiana bayou profoundly cut off from the rest of modern civilization. Technology is nonexistent, education a matter of hard knocks, and poverty a constant, yet everyone is rich in imagination, especially Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), who regards this wasteland at the edge of the world as “the prettiest place on Earth.” To this seven-year-old, whose stream-of-consciousness gush of alternately practical and mystical observations feels haunted by the ghosts of Lewis Carroll and William Faulkner, man and animal are inextricably bound, and the harsh drama of Hushpuppy’s young life, a fierce resistance against the eradication of land and an even fiercer struggle with family ties, is presented as an origin story for us to gawk at with the same sense of wonder we may lavish on ancient cave drawings.
Zeitlin’s lived-in, almost abstract sense of social realism is partly what makes Beasts of the Southern Wild so refreshing and uniquely affecting. He doesn’t harp on the details of life in the Bathtub, nor does he go sniffing for verities in the common place. Though the film is a wild synthesis of realist and magical-realist impulses, he avoids aestheticizing the poverty of his characters and their daily routines, never condescending to their behaviors. Food for Hushpuppy, almost daily, is a chicken that her ailing father, Wink (Dwight Henry), grabs from a cooler and plops on a grill—a ritual Zeitlin doesn’t regard with shock or fake sentimentality. This isn’t a mythic act, just an unpretentious necessity of life, to be repeated tomorrow, without shame: Wink feeds Hushpuppy, Hushpuppy eats the bird inside the sty that’s her dining room, Hushpuppy flings the carcass at the hungry pigs that surround her.
The father-daughter relationship at the heart of the film is hauntingly rendered as a prickly knot of animosity and tough love. What begins as a fight between Hushpuppy and Wink on the eve of a storm understood as Katrina, with Wink impatient of the girl’s fear and inability to sit still inside a suitcase (yes, a suitcase), turns on a dime into a gleeful destruction of Wink’s dilapidated home (Hushpuppy lives in a second one nearby)—a way for him to distract Hushpuppy from her fear. Later, after Katrina has flooded the Bathtub and everyone comes together to eat and live and persevere together, a man tries to teach Hushpuppy how to pry open a crab with a tool—in a way that Wink would appear to deem too civilized given how angrily he insists that she use her hands and suck out the meat. Even at his most frightening, to us and to Hushpuppy, there’s always a sense that Wink is devoted completely to cultivating his daughter’s survival instincts.
Any summary of the film, in which an ever-dreaming young girl’s coming of age is related as cosmic wonderment and environmental allegory, is bound to undersell how cannily the film’s essential weirdness is tied to its sense of realism. When Hushpuppy, daydreaming about her presumably dead mama, sets her own house on fire, she wishes she could die—and so she hides under a cardboard box before running outside and getting slapped on the face by Wink. She wishes him dead and strikes him on the chest, and when he passes out and appears to die, she runs for medicine, from the woman who teaches the Bathtub’s children a bit too heavy-handedly about the universe coming apart, and returns to a missing Wink. Hushpuppy’s struggle to determine her place in the world, to understand the repercussions of her words and actions, to distinguish between the real and the fantasy, drives the film and propels it toward ecstasy.
However fiercely the story of the film is filtered through Hushpuppy’s imaginative and naïve point of view, and without caving to whimsy, Beasts of the Southern Wild flirts with insult, as if Zeitlin, not Hushpuppy, is the one who believes that man is not unlike the gigantic ancient hogs that rise from frozen tombs, in the wake of melting polar icecaps, and charge toward the Bathtub. Some folks speak choice nuggets of wisdom while others only speak in grunts, but is this because the supporting amateur players are incapable of more or because Zeitlin couldn’t bother to give them words? Or maybe we’re also meant to witness this world through more than just Hushpuppy’s eyes, because sometimes, as she holds up animals to her ears so she can listen to their needs, she discovers that some “be talkin’ in codes.” Maybe so, because when this brave lemming, though her ambition is not toward annihilation but salvation, finally does come face to face with the hogs, there’s no insult, only heartbreaking understanding in this child, raised bitterly yet miraculously right, standing up to all that is savage both inside and outside of her.