As played by newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis, Hushpuppy is an indomitable force of nature, with a quick, childlike whimsy, precious accidental humor, and a quiet forcefulness behind her soulful eyes. It’s a tremendous performance of lively emotionality and intensity that holds the movie together, no small feat for a six year old. The little girl lives in “the Bathtub” with her father (Dwight Henry), a loving, but quick-tempered man suffering from an unexplained ailment. Together, along with the surface-quirky, thinly developed local color, they live in a tangle of nature and makeshift machinery. Their house is two trailers perched high above the ground, the better to survive the coming storm. Their boat is built out of the rusty, buoyant back of a pickup truck. Their yard is swarming with critters, some pets and some food.
With insert shots of crumbling glaciers and melting ice caps and with a herd of maybe-real, maybe-not (definitely metaphorical either way) beasts, enormous horned blendings of buffalo and hog, that are thundering across the swampy landscape, Beasts of the Southern Wild is haunted by a sense of dreamlike doom that hangs heavy over its picturesque invention and the poor resilience in the face of clear dangers that is at once too cutely adored and, by nature of the film’s point of view, tragically off-screen. The residents and even the narrative’s very conceit are little more than background interest to the single point-of-view that drives the entire experience. The little girl who stands so strong in the center of it all is living in a difficult situation, to say the least. No wonder to her the world appears to be broken, nature itself falling out of balance. No wonder beasts may be coming. Is it all literally real? It’s real enough to Hushpuppy.
She navigates this world with the attentiveness of childhood experience as the camera follows her low to the ground, as she narrates in rough, fanciful ribbons of words that recall Days of Heaven in the mix of toughness and tenderness, innocence and observation. The intensity of feeling that comes from the film is due in large part to Wallis’s performance. There’s an incredible sense of fragile strength, of weary energy, of novelty, bravery, and innocent ignorance washing over every woozy frame here. Early on in the film, Hushpuppy grows so mad at her father that she snaps at him with the kind of half-funny, precociously painful formulation that only a young child can find: she promises to eat birthday cake on his grave. Later, when it’s clear that her father is not long for this world, he bends down and tells her that every daddy must die. “Not my daddy,” she says, meeting his eyes with an unblinking, yet shaken fortitude that has to be seen to be believed. The tragedy of Beasts of the Southern Wild is the way the little girl tells us that when kids centuries from now go to school they’ll learn about Hushpuppy and her daddy, while the events of the film portray the resilient, scrappy band of survivalists marginalized by society, by nature, and by their own decisions. The world of the movie will in all likelihood never learn of, let alone remember, Hushpuppy, but I certainly will.
Although Zeitlin, a promising talent, marshals a notable amount of energy and ambition in his conjuring of this grainy, moving mashup (Miyazaki by way of Malick; Alfonso Cuaron by way of David Gordon Green, Mark Twain by way of Toni Morrison and Maurice Sendak), the film grows thin and muddled. Barely squeaking past the ninety minute mark and nonetheless packed with narrative concerns that slowly come into focus only to blur away, the film also feels wrongheaded in its blinkered celebration of tendencies in some characters that will ultimately, despite the swell of musical uplift that soars into the end credits, not serve these characters well in this situation. However, the thinness and obfuscation can be explained away – maybe not wholly convincingly, but good enough for me – by pinning it to Hushpuppy’s point of view. We’re with her every step of the way and, though the filmmaking, impressive as it is, isn’t quite enough to keep the undercooked story engaging on its own, it’s little Quvenzhané Wallis that keeps the interest high. Even if, in the end, I felt a tad underwhelmed by the experience as a whole, Hushpuppy is one of the most memorable, immediately endearing characters I’ve seen in quite some time and I’m glad for the chance to meet her. She’s the best reason to see the film and, though I’m definitely interested in what Zeitlin will do next, Hushpuppy is the main reason I’m eager to see this film again.