There's magic in poverty, wonder in the squalor of impoverished lives on an island that's being swallowed by erosion and rising sea levels off the Louisiana coast. That's what New York filmmaker Benh Zeitlin discovered in Beasts of the Southern Wild, a homespun slice of cinematic magical realism set in the bayou of myth, among very poor people we recognize as both mythic and all too real.
Using untrained actors, natural settings and the simplest of special effects, Zeitlin weaves a minor epic of a tiny girl, living almost on her own, in a world that's pretty much off the grid, a motherless child in search of that mother.
Not that Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) doesn't have a daddy. He (Dwight Henry) drinks too much, makes her live all by herself in a ramshackle trailer on blocks high above the certain-to-come floodwaters. She feeds their motley menagerie of critters — chickens that they eat, hogs and a little dog — while in a nearby shack, Daddy drinks, coughs and, in his most coherent moments, passes down to her the wisdom of the waters.
Here's how you catch catfish, "Boss." That's what he calls her. He reaches over the side of his makeshift pontoon boat, built from a pickup truck bed, and grabs one. Here's how you cook shrimp. We're living "in the buffet of the universe," he crows. "We got the prettiest place on Earth."
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Hushpuppy, a filthy urchin mucking around, hears him. She listens to the animals "in words I cannot understand," holding a crab up to her ear, bending over to listen to a pig. And, this first-grade-age girl clings to fading memories of her fry-cook mama, who "swam away" some time back.
This informal island community, called "The Bathtub," fears the rising sea levels and the next big storm. Hushpuppy fears being killed by her violent dad, and him dying and leaving her alone. And she is afraid that legendary giant tusked pigs, encased in ice, will thaw out due to global warming and destroy The Bathtub.
Before the film is done, many of those harbingers will have borne fruit.
Too many movies are shot in Hollywood, and too many in Louisiana, thanks to extravagant tax breaks. But none has had a firmer sense of place than Beasts of the Southern Wild. You can smell the muck at low tide, the crayfish boiling, the stench of a community named for something nobody owns — a bathtub.
Zeitlin's camera tracks, snakelike, through this world. The whole affair feels like found footage, some unseen playmate of Hushpuppy's documenting her limited but fascinating life.
Zeitlin holds faces in extreme closeup, catching fear, defiance and confusion in battered faces that could have come out of the Great Depression. And the actors — novices — give him truth.
For all the poverty we see, there is enchantment here, the unfiltered wonder of a world seen by a child who has known nothing else. It's a hard life, but "nobody like a pity party," the old man declares. Hunt, fish, scavenge, fix, make do. Just get by.
Beasts of the Southern Wild, an award winner at Cannes, is a startling debut feature — this year's Winter's Bone — but a film all the more magical because we sense that even Zeitlin, as sharp as his eye undoubtedly is, will never be able to duplicate it.