It is Hushpuppy’s voice, which is also (or actually) Quvenzhané Wallis’s voice, that first establishes the dreamlike grittiness of Beasts of the Southern Wild, the dazzling debut feature from director Benh Zeitlin. Accompanied by an intoxicating montage of her cheerful hardscrabble life–pressing small animals to her ear to hear their heartbeats, racing across grassy ground with fireworks in her hands–six-year-old Hushpuppy talks about “The Bathtub,” a fictional island off of Louisiana’s Gulf Coast that is marked by poverty, perseverance and a taut, tenacious sense of community. Cut off from nearby neighboring cities and towns so dramatically that it can seem like they’re homesteaders on another planet, the denizens of the island live with a sense of stitched-together pride that comes from necessary self-reliance. Zeitlin shapes the film with slippery rhythms and a tone that swirls high drama and indie understatement into a thick stew of disarming emotion.
Working with Lucy Alibar to adapt her one-act play Juicy and Delicious, Zeitlin taps into the exuberant delirium of bayou culture, where the natural landscape that starts oppressive is constantly threatening to flex its muscles further and permanently scrub away all signs of pesky humanity. When a unnamed storm descends, one that clearly recalls Hurricane Katrina, the strength of the community faces a tremendous stress test that effectively scrapes every wound until they are bloody blisters. The film invites a multitude of literal and metaphorical interpretations–some enraptured, some controversial, some almost enraged at the perception of condescension born of privilege–which gives it the resonant splendor of a modernist fable. There are simple pointed moments, many of the best driven by the fierce, undervalued performance of Dwight Henry as Hushpuppy’s father, but those are ultimately the splashing stones that create shimmering ripples of cayenne-dusted magic realism. As Hushpuppy marches through this dented existence that she intuitively senses is adrift but is all she’s ever known, Zeitlin presses in on Wallis’s marvelous face. No matter how many abstractions or fanciful elements are built into Beasts of the Southern Wild, Zeitlin knows there’s a grounding truth to be found in the creases of determination he finds in that sharp visage, so young and yet profoundly ageless.