Somewhere south of this city on the Mississippi, the land bleeds into a bird’s foot, thin, branching synapses of earth spliced by fissures of water. It seems almost hypothetical, waiting to be conjured into existence — an ideal setting for “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” a magic act of the first order, the kind of movie that does for the Delta what Hemingway did for Kilimanjaro.
Director Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature, co-written with Lucy Alibar from her play “Juicy and Delicious,” tells of six-year-old Hushpuppy (extraordinary newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis), her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), and the other voluntary exiles of “The Bathtub,” a community slowly being eaten alive by the Gulf of Mexico. Fiercely elemental, its sights and sounds are in touch with nature’s bass note of supernaturalism — how a storm here can crash down with the force of an ocean and the low hum of a freight train, how the still night whispers with insects. Amid this cacophony, Hushpuppy and her daddy strive for harmony, security, and survival, keepers of the flame as the world erodes beneath them. It is a compelling, gorgeously realized portrait of a girl and her father struggling to come to terms with fate and with each other, a document of a society that may soon be lost.
It is also a Katrina story, the first cinematic fiction to tackle successfully the existential questions facing southern Louisiana immediately after the storm. There were, remember, those who said the entire swath of land below Lake Pontchartrain should be left to nature, like a ghost town of the Old West. Seven years later this August, it seems a daft proposal. Though this strange relic of a Frenchman’s tenuous plan continues to deal with blight, poverty, crime, poor health, and a litany of other problems, there remains the fact that New Orleans, like the Delta of “Beasts,” has kept on keepin’ on, as stubbornly loyal as ever.
The movie’s ability to treat the topic so precisely — something heretofore done only in nonfiction films like “When the Levees Broke” or “Trouble the Water,” or on television, in “Treme” — reminded me, curiously enough, of “The Hurt Locker.” Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning tale of the Iraq War followed a slew of stellar documentaries (“No End in Sight,” “Iraq in Fragments,” and “Taxi to the Dark Side,” among others), but fictional depictions the war on terror tended toward the preachy didacticism of “Lions for Lambs” or “Rendition.”
Bigelow smartly narrowed the frame to the slim space between defusing a bomb and being destroyed by it, and in doing so captured the terrible stress that came after shock and awe. “Beasts,” too, comes at disaster obliquely: the word “Katrina” is never uttered, and only deep into the film do we glimpse the unwieldy machinery of the triage that followed. But it as surely poses the age-old New Orleans questions as any report or testimony. What price are we willing to pay to hold fast to a way of life? What consequences can we bear, and what responsibility must government take? How do you perform a cost-benefit analysis of love, or joy, or homeland, of family, or community, or history?
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” offers no simple answers, not that there are any. I do think, however, that it captures the spirit of the place: the poetic eccentricities of the local patois, the onrush of nature, the tenacity of traditions that seem built to survive only in this particular tropic. In this there’s an implicit argument in support of the work that’s been done, and that continues apace — it is a film whose magical realism not only suits the wildly imaginative perspective of its child protagonist, but also the mentality of the holdout, the exile, the visionary. Like the land whose heartbeat it measures, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is rough-hewn and imperfect, yet it remains resolutely committed to the fullness of life, from the fantastical to the harshly realistic and every shade in between.
If the film’s second half slackens slightly, that is perhaps only fitting; “Beasts” is attuned to the region’s unrushed rhythm, willing to linger on the telling detail even if it means letting the story drift. By the end, though, it becomes, as Hushpuppy says, “cohesive” once more. The final moments register as the reinvention of the world, an incantation of possibility for an impossible place. Here, at the far end of a river that collects the effluvia of a continent, in a city so often written off as impossible itself, that’s surely somewhere to start.