In a forgotten dip of Louisiana marshland cut off from the rest of the world, six year-old Hushpuppy (Wallis), a kinky haired Pippi Longstocking in galoshes, lives amongst the swamp and jetsam that her dirt-poor but happy Delta community have called The Bathtub. Bathtubbians spend their days fishing, scavenging and boozing, regaling their kiddies with wild tales of prehistoric beasts whilst teaching them how to live self-sufficent as well as to look at the main-landlubbers beyond the levee as nothing more than modernist suckers. You could almost describe life at the Bathtub idyllic until a storm, both real and metaphorical, comes to rock their fragile world.
Where most filmmakers would of crafted such a premise into a sad sack Post-Katrina polemic, debut director Benh Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar, whose play Juicy and Delicious was the inspiration for the film, instead tell a story of sheer joyful wonder. A rough-hewn fairy tale with a massive heart and imagination. Sidelining digital for indie cinema’s old favorite 16mm film, cinematographer Ben Richardson’s camera enchantingly captures Hushpuppy’s magical POV, finding a ragged beauty in the debris, overgrown greenery and swarming flies, transforming a muddy junkyard into a bayou wonderland.
Hushpuppy, like Huck Finn, Scout Finch, Cassandra Mortmain and Elliot from E.T., allow us to experience the world through the naive lens of childhood, taking us on a journey that is their coming of age – starting out with all the rumbustious, imaginative innocence of youth to the inevitable disillusionment when the world falls short of their ideals and expectations. Hushpuppy’s lyrical ruminations which decorate the soundtrack coupled with Richardson’s bewitching natural light cinematography definitely smacks of the work of Terrence Malick but Zeitlin adds a lot of sentimentality into the mix that comes off more charming than sticky and trite, and unlike the mysterious bearded one, Zeitlin makes his points quickly and with more clarity.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a spellbinding and uplifting swampland fairy tale with a gigantic central performance from pint size five year-old non-actor Quvenzhané Wallis that is not only one of the years best but one for the ages.