Written and directed by Benh Zeitlin, whose short, "Glory at Sea," was shot through with purpose and promise, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is as stirring and striking a film as you could wish for at Sundance. Shot and set in a Louisiana community called The Bathtub, on the wrong side of the levees that stop the water from encroaching on civilization, it's at heart the story of a little girl, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) who lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry). That synopsis does not do the film justice, though, as the story — based on a play by Lucy Alibar — incorporates a flood that not only drowns The Bathtub but also huge, prehistoric beasts — Aurochs — returning to life from the frozen icecaps and stalking, gigantically, towards Hushpuppy's world. It's a flawed comparison — and indeed, any comparison for a work as completely and startlingly unique as this will be flawed — but I kept imagining "Beasts of the Southern Wild" as a pagan, powerful, Godless (but not loveless or hopeless) variation on "The Tree of Life," where parents and children cope with the passage of time and the end of life in a series of moments built as much on visual poetry as character interactions.
I can envision many audience members being turned off by "Beasts of the Southern Wild." Wink and Hushpuppy live in brutal poverty and squalor, and squeamish viewers will be put off and perhaps shudder in revulsion by the lack of refrigeration, bloated drowned livestock rotting on the roadside or the constant drinking of still-made white liquor. At the same time, if the purpose of cinematic storytelling is to create a world — and you could argue that it is — that's what Zeitlin has done here, aided and abetted by sister Eliza Zeitlin's art and his cast of non-actors. The opening festival we see take place in The Bathtub — full of art and fire, liquor and shouting — is so bizarre and unique as to verge on science fiction instead of social realism. And there are people in America this poor, and Zeitlin neither ennobles nor disparages them.
Hushpuppy's world is full of strangeness — the way she "speaks" to her absent mother is a haunting bit of creation, with an unseen voice and a Michael Jordan jersey standing in for that empty space where a mother should be. Zeitlin creates a world of magical realism here, with lights and voices and monsters in the night, but also with peril and danger in every moment. A scene where Hushpuppy, cooking alone, starts a fire in the shack where she lives across the "yard" of weeds and trash from Wink, is viscerally horrifying even as you wonder how Zeitlin got his shots and scenes without killing anyone.
Like Terrence Malick's work, this is a story of life in the state of nature — but a nature red in tooth and claw, a nature without the hand of God to move it. Indeed, the word "God" is never heard in the film; Hushpuppy speaks about the working of the universe, and how, if you listen, "everybody's heart be beatin' and squirtin' and saying things we can't understand." And after the waters drown The Bathtub (the Biblical Old Testament allusions are here — in a world of mud and blood and fire and flood), Hushpuppy and her father are taken to a shelter; the sight of fluorescent lighting and drop-tile ceilings are like something out of the more sterile and startling inventions of "2001." Wink is ill, and needs to protect Hushpuppy; she wants to stay with him, and find her mother, and neither of those is going to go as she, or we, might have imagined or hoped.
William Carlos Williams said that "the pure products of America go crazy," and much of "Beasts of the Southern Wild" speaks to that observation, from the drinking and the stubborn refusal to leave The Bathtub to the meat and murder of daily life there. (At one point, an informal teacher for the community's feral and filthy children dumps out a bucket of crawfish and exclaims "Meat. I'm meat, you're meat … everything is meat.") When the end comes — death and despair and hope and healing in one bitter and beautiful celebration — Hushpuppy explains that one of the things her father taught her was how, "You have to take care of things smaller and sweeter than you are." There's no heaven promised or present here — a bright, blaring sign makes a blunt joke to that effect — but our small heroine notes that "one day, the children of the future will know … that there was a girl named Hushpuppy, and she lived in The Bathtub with her daddy." "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is as unique as it is uneven, as unforgettable as it is uncomfortable, and trembles with the energy, bravura and passion of director Zeitlin, his cast and his crew like some rough animal snorting and stamping with horrible wonder and the possibility of both loss and understanding. [A]