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Film Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild
And a child shall lead them.
Dir. Benh Zeilin
They say if you have the kind of nightmare where you find yourself being chased by terrifying monsters, the secret to defeating them is go completely against your instincts. Instead of running frenziedly away, too panicked to even look over your shoulder, you stop and turn around and face them directly, and in doing so, you take away their power to haunt you. This is exactly what six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) does near the end of Benh Zeilin’s extraordinarily moving film, and the best thing about it is how well earned Hushpuppy’s fierce coming-of-age becomes throughout the film.
She lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), a proud and capable man who lives in the small, tight-knit island community known in the film as the Bathtub, just off the coast of Louisiana and not far from New Orleans. Wink and Hushpuppy live singularly roughshod lives — they live in separate makeshift converted trailer homes, surrounded by pigs, chickens, dogs and other ephemera — practically living off the land, as Wink hand-fishes the streams that surround them for catfish.
When a massive hurricane hits the island, Wink is one of the hearty few who refuses to leave for higher ground, choosing instead to stay with his daughter in a boat made from a wooden chest. After the storm, the two of them gather together with the rest of the straggling community in one of the few homes that remains undamaged, and pledge to avoid getting ensnared by Louisiana authorities and whisked away to a shelter on the mainland (known in the film as “the dry side.”) The trouble is, Wink is sick and getting sicker, and the community’s plan to blow up a section of the levee in order to drain the water off of their island garners, as you can imagine, a host of unwanted attention from the powers-that-be.
The film, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance festival, has been described as employing magic realism, and there is a good deal of dream-like detail, including the monster-like Aurochs, giant, marauding wild-boar beasts that Hushpuppy imagines charging over everything in their path, coming ever closer to her Daddy’s homestead throughout the narrative, but the effect is much closer to something out of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, than what you might find in a Marquez novel. The fantastical elements are from that of a small child’s perspective, raised in the natural world, born into the rhythmic life cycle that her father’s way of life emphasizes.
Hushpuppy is gentle with the smaller creatures around her, attempting to read their souls by holding them up to her ear to listen to them (“Sometimes they be talking in codes,” she explains to us). She’s in tune, in other words, to the natural world around her, which only adds to her fierceness of spirit. Indeed, in a way the film plays almost as a superhero origin story of its diminutive heroine. She’s a warrior, a poet, an artist — “If daddy kills me, I ain’t gonna be forgotten,” she tells us amidst one of her father’s violent rants, putting up artistic depictions of her life and times on the inside of a large cardboard box she uses as a hideaway from the quick-tempered Wink — and, in the end, nothing less than her father’s daughter: determined, ferocious, and fully invested in the wondrously brutal natural world all around her.