If Toni Morrison had written a Mad Max movie, especially one of the scrapyard-at-dawn sequels, it might have emerged as Beasts of the Southern Wild — a dizzy, unclassifiable picaresque that unfolds like an apocalyptic crawfish boil at Terrence Malick's house, where words have the power to make mountains crumble and committing a violent act can be the only way to set free a dying people.
The big winner at this year's Sundance Film Festival, it arrives in theaters accompanied by a hurricane of hype, as well as an angry backlash from a lot of people who for some reason are now very concerned with representations of the South in cinema. Understand this: Beasts of the Southern Wild doesn't glamorize poverty; it depicts a society where money is irrelevant. This isn't a story for fans of realist narrative, or those who seek reassuring messages.
Six-year-old Hushpuppy (the magnificent Quvenzhané Wallis) lives with her father Wink (Nashville native Dwight Henry) in a ramshackle community called The Bathtub, a sub-levee outlying island on the Louisiana Gulf Coast. The Bathtub has that Godspell/Dogme 95 "everything that's here is part of the show" vibe, a grungy, funky sprawl that incorporates everything that can be found. The Bathtub's population, a close-knit, fun-loving group of alcoholic fireworks enthusiasts, are faced with a coming storm that will devastate their homes, and quite possibly free ancient prehistoric predators that will ravage the land.
My colleague Sarah Brown rightly pegged Beasts of the Southern Wild as an American live-action Hayao Miyazaki film. Imagine My Neighbor Totoro's Mei in Nausicäa's role and you've got the idea: The archetypes are all there. This is a fairy tale for kids who've had to have their parents explain 9/11 or global warming to them. It's a story for children who've been thrust onto a playing field where insanity is the norm and the idea of safety and protection really just becomes a concept, an ideal.
Childhood, fortunately, has the malleable strength to accept what is given and adapt accordingly; this film would make an exceptional double feature with last year's Dogtooth. Some critics have called Beasts an hour-and-a-half of child abuse, and there might be some truth to that, were it a literal document. But this is a hero's journey, equal parts Joseph Campbell and what could be called bayou steampunk. The lotus must rise from the earth ...
And ah, Hushpuppy. Puncher of catfish, snapper of crustaceans, go-go boot-clad preschool warrioress, newcomer Wallis is a steely force of nature. Hers is an astounding performance: She can exhibit the petulant tunnel vision of a typical 6-year-old, but that perspective also includes a near-cosmic awareness of her own place in the universe, locally and thematically (and indirectly, as the star of this movie). Watching her make soup with a blowtorch (in a gut-busting shout-out to John Dilworth's "The Dirdy Birdy") may be the single funniest moment in a film this year.
But the girl's iron will, her fierce determination, and her devotion to the survival of her hardscrabble community make the Toni Morrison/Road Warrior analogy not seem far-fetched. Beasts of the Southern Wild could easily be the early years of Tina Turner's Aunty Entity from Beyond Thunderdome; the thrilling last shot gives everything that came before it the mythic force of an origin story.
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