Beasts of the Southern Wild
Directed by Benh Zeitlin
Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly
Rated PG-13 for thematic material including child imperilment, some disturbing images, language and brief sensuality  
1 hr. 33 mins.

What would you say if I told you that a first-time director’s small film about tragedy and survival in an isolated town in southern Louisiana, a film that featured local Louisiana residents and cost less than $2 million to shoot, would go on to win a Golden Camera award at Cannes and a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance?

Maybe you’d think I was joking, but this is exactly what happened with Beasts of the Southern Wild. And, as it turns out, the awards are no fluke. This film may be low budget but it’s also imaginative, unique and thought provoking. Writing, direction, photography, music. All the things a movie fan hopes for, dance playfully on the screen like a large school of fish.

At the heart of this story is Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), the film’s narrator. She’s a 6-year-old girl living in a destitute bayou encampment called the Bathtub. It’s not your standard family arrangement. Hushpuppy’s mother has disappeared. She and her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), live in separate squalid houses.

Wink is dying and wants to help his daughter make it on her own. The only way he knows how to do this is to be tough with her. He’s a tyrant. He’s abusive. But he’s also her teacher. It all seems to be part of their environment. Give no quarter, take what you can. Most of all, defend their home because this little piece of dirty marshland is where they belong.

When a hurricane devastates the Bathtub, the whole community must pull together to survive. Hushpuppy observes what’s happening and shares her childlike perspective about the world and how its tiny pieces work together. In this intricate swamp, she wants to understand where she fits and how she can heal her father.

First-time director Benh Zeitlin has found a kernel here that most directors might otherwise miss:  the Louisiana swamp as an allegory for human life and our planet’s environment. He seems to have a knack for using the camera as an eye to reveal in remarkable detail the fight for survival in the Bathtub.

What’s more, the screenplay, which Zeitlin co-wrote with Lucy Alibar, is seamless and authentic, as if the story, the storm and the will to survive are all happening in real time with real people.

No doubt considerable Oscar buzz will build for the performance of Wallis. She’s a small girl in her first feature film, but she seems to have imbibed bayou life like an acre of swamp grass. In this role, she’s the real deal.

Dwight Henry as her father, Wink, is her equal, oozing brutality and toughness, but not without a point. There’s truth to his teaching. He knows he’s living on borrowed time. Henry’s performance is gritty and powerful, hard to watch, but clearly understood.

The most remarkable element in this film is the mixture of tough-as-nails survival instinct with childlike fantasy. Zeitlin captures this in so many inventive ways, from the melting glaciers to dazzling fireworks to the emergence of the foreboding aurochs.

There seems to be a message here about the timely connection of all humans to the planet. Harsh as the world can be, it’s our choice to live peacefully within it or be destroyed. All the small bits of nature must fit together or the planet falls apart.

In the giant universe of movies, money and star power, Beasts of the Southern Wild seems to be that small bit of cinema that actually believes in the magic of filmmaking. It’s tough, grim, joyous and celebratory. Most of all, it’s about finding a niche and standing your ground. In the inimitable words of Hushpuppy:  “Everybody loses the thing that made them. The brave men stay and watch it happen. They don’t run.”