Quvenzhané Wallis is an extraordinary creature apparently sent here by some kind of advanced civilization. Through some miracle, a film maker named Benh Zeitlin --whose origins are also suspect-- found her at an elementary school in Houma, Louisiana and decided to cast her in this movie he was making. The film was all about an isolated community on a Louisiana barrier island called The Bathtub, and the sweaty, poverty sticken -- but quite happy -- lives of its inhabitants. It could have worked as a drama or as a documentary.
In fact, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a little bit of both. But the addition of Wallis causes the film to crack into another dimension entirely; to leave its mosquito and alligator infested funk zone and soar into realms of magical realism. Wallis plays a six year old girl named Hushpuppy who spends her days traipsing through The Bathtub’s swampy, humid jungles in Underoos and white galoshes. She lives in what remains of a battered camping trailer; its interior a jumbled wash of dingy keepsakes and fly-covered debris. She lives -- sort of -- with her father Wink, an angry backwoodsman with medical issues, and an ever changing menagerie of dogs, chickens and grunting pigs. The residents of The Bathtub take redneck ingenuity to new levels, constructing everything from boats to schoolhouses out of junk discarded from the mainland. They are the stuff of cable reality shows.
Zeitlin has apparently seen a few Terrence Malick films along the way, as his scenes of bleak and gnarled nature evokes reveries from The New World, while Wallis’ dreamy internal monologues are reminiscent of young Linda Manz’s craggy V.O. in Days of Heaven. And like Malick’s films, Beasts of the Southern Wild attempts to deal with mind numbingly big issues in symbolic, indirect ways. Here Zeitlin attempts to render the concept of climate change using the palette of a children's fable, with varying degrees of success. Hushpuppy’s destiny is irrevocably tied to the fate of a gang of lumbering giant pigs that appear at the film’s critical moments, serving as shaggy harbingers of the rising seas that threaten her savage Shangri-la. When she confronts the creatures in the final reel, Zeitlin’s approach advocates the merits of cool headed solutions over garment-rending histrionics. If Hushpuppy is meant to represent the future of mankind, maybe there’s hope after all.
We can’t really be sure because Zeitlin’s metaphors and messages are often garbled in transmission. He can’t quite decide if his hirsute hillbillies are to be admired or pitied, and this confusion readily translates. One wants to respect their resilience in the face of long odds, but their stubborn resistance to the aid workers who risk life and limb to rescue them smacks of stupidity and paranoia. The fact is The Bathtub is no place to raise a child and its residents are inbred, ill-informed and gripped by a rabid form of geographic xenophobia. Wink eventually resorts to an act of callous criminality to preserve the islanders‘ sacred lifestyle of wallowing in shit, without a moment’s thought to the innocents that will be harmed in the process. In the final scenes, Wink will be a focal point of pathos, but he’s burned too many bridges -- or causeways in this case--- to generate much sympathy.
Ultimately Beasts of the Southern Wild’s meandering narrative is little more than a platform for the spectacular wonders of Quvenzhané Wallis. This dusty ragamuffin transforms the film from messy to messianic, and becomes a hypersensitive Creole Shirley Temple for a new, frightening millennium. As her tiny form traverses the piles of smoldering scrap left behind by her wasteful, destructive elders, she brings the true cost of a society’s century of bad decisions into sharp focus. Wallis stands at Ground Zero of a pre-apocalyptic vision of a post-apocalyptic world, and we can only hope this crusty band of rag-pickers don’t represent the destiny of Wallis’ tender generation. Zeitlin may not have told his story with the most skill or conviction, but you’ve got to admire him for trying.