“Sometimes miraculous films come into being, made by people you’ve never heard of, starring unknown faces, blindsiding you with creative genius.” – Roger Ebert
I missed Beasts of the Southern Wild during its all too brief theatrical run last summer. If you did too, I suggest you rent it. Made on a low budget with a cast of first-time actors, notably the amazing Quvenzhané Wallis, who was only five when filming started, this movie is not like any other you’ve recently seen. It is laced with joy while portraying a group of have-nots on the cultural fringe as they struggle to hang on to their way of life.
Hushpuppy (Wallis) lives with her daddy, Wink (Dwight Henry), in The Bathtub, an island at sea level off New Orleans, barely protected by levees. The Bathtub folk have nothing by the standards of “dry side” people. They live by fishing and raising pigs and chickens. They build homes in trees out of cast off materials and make boats out of pickup beds and empty metal drums. They have moonshine, music, community, and the gift of celebration.
Hushpuppy talks to the animals and her mother, who is gone, and sometimes they reply. She knows a storm is coming Her schoolteacher tells the class about aurochs, huge prehistoric beasts. “You got to learn to survive,” warns the teacher. There’s a picture of ice caps in the classroom, and Hushpuppy is close enough to the world that she seems to hear them melting, seems to see the frozen aurochs stir.
The winds rise and the sky turns black. The storm is never named, but we know it’s Katrina. Salt water fills the bathtub and everything starts to die.
“I’m gonna make it right,” says Wink, but Hushpuppy sees that he’s sick.” The aurochs are very close. “No crying,” says Wink. “You got to survive.”
Bathtub people look to Hushpuppy’s father as a natural leader, a role he tries to pass on to his daughter in his bluff and sometimes whisky-soaked way. “Who da man?” he often demands. “I’m the man,” Hushpuppy replies, but she’s also six years old. What can she do against all the disasters taking shape in her mind as a herd of fearsome beasts? If you can’t outrun an auroch, how do you stare it down?
Roger Ebert says, “Hushpuppy lives in desolation, and her inner resources are miraculous. She is so focused, so sure, so defiant and brave, that she is like a new generation put forward in desperate times by the human race.”
Everyone’s saying Quvenzhané Wallis is on the shortlist for a best actress nomination. This year I can’t think of anyone more deserving. Watch the movie and see what you think.