The greatest heroine to grace the big screen this year is not Katniss Everdeen or Princess Merida.
It’s Hushpuppy, a six-year-old Louisiana girl who braves the waters of Hurricane Katrina and outwits a herd of mythical monsters in the beautiful indie gem “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
Quvenzhané Wallis gives one of the best child performances I’ve ever seen as Hushpuppy, a young girl who lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) in the Bathtub, a poor area beneath New Orleans’s levee. The Bathtub’s inhabitants know that it only takes one breach to wipe out their homes — but rather than worry and fret, the residents throw parades and parties, with a holiday almost every day.
Not that Hushpuppy’s life is carefree. Wink is an alcoholic and sick with a blood disease. He knows he doesn’t have the wits, resources or strength to take care of Hushpuppy, who lives in her own trailer next door. Sometimes he is a good protector, with a tough love mentality that prepares her for life without him; other times he lashes out, screams and treats her like his enemy.
Hushpuppy has been taught by her teachers that one day the polar ice caps will melt, flooding the Bathtub and releasing the mystical beasts known as “aurochs,” who will return to reclaim from the land. When an argument with Wink coincides with his failing health and the onset of Hurricane Katrina, Hushpuppy believes she has set into motion a chain of events that must be put right, and the film follows her as she witnesses the devastation of the Bathtub, sets out to find her mother and defeat the aurochs.
Director Benh Zeitlin’s film takes the raw reality of recent tragedy and filters it through a child’s imagination. The result is a film where sorrow and whimsy kiss each other and scenes of immense pain stand alongside sequences of incredible beauty.
Zeitlin has a terrific sense of place, and the Bathtub is a wonderfully created world, one that exists on the margins of our own and is filled with its own particular whimsy. There’s a palpable energy and joy to the early scenes, as the Bathtub’s residents revel in their freedom and engage in picnics, fireworks, races and other frivolity. The film captures the sense of community that exists in areas like this, where residents must band together for simple survival.
But the freedom is whisked away with the rains of Katrina. In these sequences, Zeitlin doesn’t shy away from the reality of poverty, as the Bathtub is soon filled with refugees and orphans, homes are destroyed and livestock is devastated. It would almost be hopeless if we didn’t see it through Hushpuppy’s fiercely determined and imaginative eyes, as she imagines that the floods are the doing of mystical beasts and that her refugee status is actually a quest to save her father.
Wallis is fantastic. Hushpuppy is a tough young girl who must marshal all the resources of her strength and imagination. There’s a stubbornness and grit in her eyes, coupled with the hurt of a child aching for her mother and fearing she’s responsible for the end of the world. Wallis brings to life Hushpuppy’s fear as she searches for her mother, and determination as she stands up to the aurochs and tells them they’re not going to get her father. It’s a performance that is heartbreaking and exhilarating in the same turn, and it outshines every adult performance in the film.
Henry, like other cast members, is not a professional actor, and he strains to hit some of his lines. But he brings to life Wink’s fear and stubbornness. Indeed, the entire adult cast brings both the joy and foolishness of the Bathtub’s residents to life—joy as they celebrate each day they’ve been given and foolishness as they cling to their pride instead of accepting the help offered to them when it means leaving their land. The film’s politics have been hotly debated—some posit that the film argues for the absence of government assistance in the wake of disaster—but grand political statements are not the point of “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” The failure of the adults to take care of themselves and their children is, instead, what sets Hushpuppy out on her journey.
The film is a poetic, beautiful experience. The camera careens with Hushpuppy as she dashes through a celebration, sparklers erupting on either side of her. There’s a surreal beauty to watching Wink and Hushuppy float down the flood waters in their makeshift boat, fashioned out of the cab of a pickup truck. There’s sorrow in the sight of dead animals and destroyed homes, awe in the sight of giant beasts being unearthed from their slumber and heading toward the Bathtub, and heartbreak in the simple shot of orphaned children dancing with heartbroken women on a nightclub out on the sea.
One of the great joys of movies is the ability they have to transport us to worlds we’d otherwise never know. Sometimes that’s through science fiction; other times it’s fantasy. But “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is remarkable because its fantastical world exists in our own. The Bathtub is a beautifully realized, bizarre little world, and I can’t wait to visit it again.