Its residents take shelter in flimsy tin shacks decorated with scattered mounds of garbage and clutter. Stoves are ignited by blowtorches and used to fry up sautéed cat food and condensed milk. The popular mode of travel is by "boat," which constitutes anything from an empty clothes trunk to a truck bed mounted atop oil drums. Everything is damp, muddy and rusted.
To Hushpuppy, the film's tiny protagonist, the Bathtub is "the prettiest place on earth." Only 6 years old, she knows nowhere else. But after spending time there, immersed in the muck and the overgrowth and the people too busy shouting and shooting off fireworks to lament their poverty, the landscape does begin to take on a rough, rare beauty.
It gradually transforms from a blighted, forgotten slum into a muggy, magical Junkyard of Eden, a ramshackle paradise worth preserving and defending—against the wrath of nature, the encroachment of the outside world, and the mammoth horned pigs coming to devour its citizens.
A fantastical paean to those who stay behind in the face of disaster, Beasts argues that the universe is a patchwork of communities, and allowing even the smallest and most impoverished to simply wash away upsets the entire balance. Shot among the ravages of post-Katrina New Orleans but set on the eve of the hurricane's arrival, the film is a clear allegory for the Ninth Ward, an area certain authorities were seemingly happy to see drowned out of existence.
Although showered with festival accolades, some have labeled the movie's director and co-writer, a white Wesleyan graduate named Benh Zeitlin, a "cultural tourist." It's a dubious criticism, considering that where Beasts really takes us is on a tour of a child's imagination.
As far as we know, the Bathtub we experience only exists in the mind of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), who narrates the film in the mannered poetry of a fairy tale. And it's got giant, mythical creatures in it, for crying out loud. Accusing Zeitlin of making—in the words of one critic—an "art-house minstrel show" is like accusing Maurice Sendak of misrepresenting imaginary monsters. The movie is a fable, not a documentary. It's like Southern-fried, live-action Miyazaki.
Of course, it's understandable that some might confuse Beasts for neo-realism, given the two raw, unaffected performances at its center. Already the subject of Oscar handicapping, dynamo first-timer Wallis dodges precociousness with a remarkably lived-in toughness. Trudging through the mud in a stained white T-shirt, orange underwear and dirt-caked workboots, an explosive Afro billowing from her head, she confronts her community's impending apocalypse with a piercing scream and the motto, "There's no time to sit around crying like a bunch of pussies.â Nothing about her is artificial.
And her hard-drinking father, Wink (Dwight Henry)—like the rest of the cast, a non-actor—finds a similarly stern heart. His love for his daughter, whom he refers to with an impersonal "man," is almost purely instinctual: Dying of an indeterminate ailment, his only goal is to teach Hushpuppy how to survive before casting her out on her own. (Where's her mother? She "swam away" years ago.)
Wink shows her how to catch fish and crack open a crab with only her hands, like a bear with its cub. Keeping her alive is his obligation. As the storm bears down, he shoves her arms into a pair of water wings and assures, "I'm your daddy, and it's my job to take care of you." Then he grabs a bottle of moonshine and a shotgun, goes outside and fires at the raging sky.
Is it messy? A bit. But like the Bathtub, that's part of the film's charm and power. It manipulates waterworks at its emotional climax, which isn't necessary. Beasts clamps its jaws down on you long before then. I would've been crying like a pussy regardless.
Critic's Grade: A
SEE IT: Beasts of the Southern Wild is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at Cinema 21.