Beasts of the Southern Wild is a stunning, unruly achievement.
The movie bursts from the screen, both haunting and beautiful in ways rarely accomplished in film. And in so doing, the movie has marked itself as the latest torchbearer in the great wellspring of Southern Gothic tradition, offering withering social commentary and a deeply resonate exploration of human pathos.
Director Benh Zeitlin's feature length debut is set in the Mississippi River delta on a fictional island just beyond a levee. Nicknamed the “Bathtub,” the setting is one of rough-hewn utopia, at least from the perspective of our precocious narrator, Hushpuppy — played marvelously by Quvenzhané Wallis.
Set apart from and with no need of the modern world, the denizens of the Bathtub seem to exist in a state of alcohol induced semi-consciousness, though whilst somehow channeling the profound insight of substance abuse extolled by Rimbaud.
No one values this separateness more than Wink (Dwight Henry), a tragic, snake-bit man that gets through the world with reckless, puffed up machismo and an abiding sense of how much he must impart upon his young daughter. It's this winding relationship that takes center stage. With no mother and a “house” of her own, Hushpuppy is a physical manifestation of the Bathtub itself. She's a wounded, striving persona — both confused and clear-headed, making her own sense out of the crumbling world she's grown to know.
Sprouting from this duality is a magical realism that signifies the coming destruction of a world. In a more direct way, however, it is the path Hushpuppy takes to understand the crumbling fortress of parenthood.
All of us come to terms with the imperfections of our parents sooner or later. For Hushpuppy, that delusion is tougher to carry, even at her young age. Instead, the Bathtub, her father ... they are intertwined in ways that location and parenthood never are. They represent safety, longevity. Her father may not be able to dispense the love she needs, but he is still the great protector. The man that keeps the beasts at bay, that keeps her fed. Yet, he's also the man that disappears — into drink, into the woods, into his own well of troubled emotions. He is a distant entity, unreachable in ways the world isn't. In that void, she finds the soothing thump of animal heart beats and elaborates her vision with drawings and mystical visions.
Like us all, these people are incomplete in their own ways. They live apart, but are of the same vein, yearning for sense and contentment in a tenuous existence. The magical realism, the inherent pathos, they combine to create an enchanting vision of sensational beauty. Broken no doubt, but irresistibly beautiful nonetheless.
(Special Note: Beasts of the Southern Wild was released this past weekend in New York and Los Angeles. It's set to open in various other large cities on or before the weekend of July 13 with more theaters to follow. As the winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Camera d'Or at Cannes, and an early front-runner for the Best Picture Oscar, it's a must see film for 2012 and should be available in western Arkansas before too long.)