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Hushpuppy is a little girl who’s so strong she has no problem shouting, “I’m the man!” She’ll does things like punch fish, mix cat food with soup, and declare she’d “eat her pets” in order to survive. The 6-year-old, played by newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis, lives in “the Bathtub,” an island off the coast of Louisiana that’s cut off from society as we know it by a levee. And her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), uses every opportunity to teach his daughter how to be tough and take care of herself. Her mother “swam away,” he tells her. When Hushpuppy finds out that he’s sick, neither she nor the audience knows of what or how long he has.
As Beasts of the Southern Wild has picked up steam on the festival circuit, Wallis, only 5 when she was cast, has been hailed for her ultranaturalistic performance as a girl of contradictions. At times, she’s obstinate and rebellious, fighting with her father and even setting her shack on fire. But mostly she listens—to people’s conversations, to animals’ heartbeats. Hushpuppy believes that “the whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right,” she too-preciously narrates. Whenever things threaten to get too twee, however, first-time writer-director Benh Zeitlin (who co-wrote the script with Lucy Alibar, loosely based on a play) cowboys up with a line like, “Nobody likes a pity-party-havin’-ass woman.” Because that’s how people speak to kids in the Bathtub.
A teacher warns her students of global warming and the possibility of end times, and, Katrina-like, the floods do come. Most of the island’s residents flee, but Hushpuppy, her dad, and a few others stay. (The lesson? “Brave men don’t run from their home.”) A “fix” to the solution opens their world to the rest of civilization, another weighty trial. None of the Bathtub’s people appreciate being “helped” by being dragged to the mainland, and they plot their escape.
Even with frequent reality checks from the no-nonsense Wink, Beasts of the Southern Wild has its magical-realistic tone, with floods (caused by melting ice caps) bringing with them mystical, giant-boar-like creatures called aurochs whom Hushpuppy confronts and talks to. Zeitlin’s camera wavers, blurs, and zooms close, at one early point focusing on Hushpuppy running with sparklers so it looks like she’s engulfed in soft white light. It’s a resolutely original film in both style and substance that holds your interest because of its otherworldliness; how deeply you succumb to it, though, depends largely on your tolerance for Hushpuppy’s preternatural words of wisdom, such as, “Everybody loses the thing that made them.” Think of Beasts this way: There’s magic, there’s a kid who grows up too quickly, and then there’s sentimental bullshit.