From the first arresting image that appears on screen — a mobile home that appears to be suspended in the sky — Beasts of the Southern Wild lowers itself slowly into a world of heat and humidity, set apart from the hustle and bustle of modern-day life, a universe grounded in the soft, moist earth and at one with the soft hum of animals, insects, vegetation, and running water.
It is a magical-realist view from the perspective of a young child known as Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), the daughter of Wink (Dwight Henry), who may or may not be altogether balanced mentally and emotionally, and who is certainly damaged physically. Hushpuppy lives in her own house, the aforementioned mobile home, a stone’s throw from her father’s house, a shack of indeterminate origin bounded by a wood gate and a metal fence that shuts the world outside. Hushpuppy’s mother is gone, banished to the nether regions of receding memories and mythic tales of imagination.
Daughter and father live in a bayou known as The Bathtub in Louisiana, on the other side of the levee from New Orleans, in a watery territory where the community ties are strong and independent, fiercely so, and the residents fend for themselves, proudly and without a thought as to other possibilities for living their lives. The children attend a school of sorts, where the teacher delivers libertarian sermons on climate change, the fragility of the eco-system where they exist, and the coming end of their world.
All it will take is one more big storm to change everything, and when that storm arrives in a fury of thunder and pounding rain, The Bathtub is tipped upside down, emptying everyone into a river that flows toward the sea, a river that is slowly being emptied of the sustenance upon which the eco-system depends.
Hushpuppy narrates the story, which shucks off traditional narrative constraints early and often. Hushpuppy’s narration, like recollections from a distant childhood, is unreliable and erratic, almost as though it were following every ebb and flow of the river as it moves through its ever-changing course; sometimes it gets stuck in the mud, sometimes it dries up, sometimes it has to wait for another storm to start flowing again.
Underlying it all is the burbling brook of a musical score that is a reminder that this is all a story, or maybe a fable, or maybe a dream forgotten and reconstructed from the haze of a humid summer morning as flies buzz and the wind sighs through the willowy reeds of the water nearby.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is kind of the perfect summer movie, creating its own entrancing atmosphere and gently tickling mood as it sweetly wrestles with a father and a daughter, dancing in the mud and loving each other, come what may.
It almost feels as though it arose fully-formed, but it is, in fact, a delicate creation, written for the screen (with Lucy Alibar) and directed by Benh Zeitlin, who also composed the marvelous musical score. (His short films include the remarkable Glory At Sea; this is his feature debut.) It is an indelible achievement, and stands as one of the best films of the year.
Beasts of the Southern Wild opens today, Friday, July 6, at Angelika Dallas and Angelika Plano.