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Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Drama Rated PG-13

Well over 100 years into the game, originality is the movies’ most precious resource. Beasts of the Southern Wild has it in spades.

Adapted by Lucy Alibar and director Benh Zeitlin from Alibar’s stage play, the movie combines fantasy, social realism and a sense of apocalyptic urgency. It’s a post-Katrina fairy tale made from real mud. I’ve never seen anything like it – images of contemporary poverty mixed with glimpses of mythical creatures – and I’ve certainly never seen anything this bizarre that also works so well as a unified, resonant narrative.

Beasts drops us in the Bathtub, a lowland society whose residents have refused to move to higher ground despite the continual threat of flooding. And so young Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) and her father Wink (Dwight Henry) live in an elevated trailer that is propped up by stilts and tree trunks (all we learn about her mother is that she “swam away”). They scrape out a squalid existence, punctuated by celebrations of defiance and independence with their equally impoverished neighbors.

You can, perhaps, already guess the film’s influences: movies such as George Washington, Days of Heaven and Ballast, yes, but also real-world events such as Katrina, the BP oil spill and even melting polar ice caps (we see glimpses of strange, prehistoric creatures arising from the softening ice and trampling their way toward the Bathtub). Even as Hushpuppy and her neighbors celebrate, shudders of doom cast a shadow on their precarious world.

Visually, Beasts of the Southern Wild is in constant tension between filth and beauty; often they are partners in an exquisite dance. As Hushpuppy and her father float across the bayou on a raft made from the back of a pickup truck, the water is quiet, serene, comforting – until they pass by a rotting animal corpse. Later, fireworks burst from the sparklers in Hushpuppy’s hands as she runs, looking almost like the wings of an angel until we notice the torn, grimy clothes she wears. Is beauty being undercut by ugliness in these cases, or is the movie encouraging us to always be open to the sublime?

Aside from the way it puts nature in the forefront, Beasts also references Terrence Malick – and the use of Linda Manz in Days of Heaven in particular – in the way it tells its story from Hushpuppy’s perspective. Wallis, a novice, is a heartbreaking physical presence in her tattered clothes and ill-fitting boots, but it’s her voiceover dialogue and line readings that give the movie its identity. She speaks matter-of-factly, in the ways of a child – “Kids that got no mommy and no daddy, they go live in the woods, eat grass and steal underpants,” she casually shares – yet her words also echo the adult ideas and themes the film means to explore. “Strong animals know when your hearts are weak,” she observes, hinting at the picture’s Darwinian undercurrent.

Much of Beasts of the Southern Wild proceeds as a contest for survival of the fittest, particularly after a raging storm hits and the dreaded flood arrives. In one of the movie’s gentlest scenes, Wink notices Hushpuppy picking a leaf and putting it in her mouth. He sighs in shame, then begins instructing her how to fish. Later, they share a ravenous fish boil with neighbors that is downright animalistic, ending with Hushpuppy flexing her muscles at her father’s command.

Wink, we learn, is preparing Hushpuppy for a life without him (a prospect that is even more awful after we hear her say she “can count all the times I’ve been lifted on two fingers”). You ache for this girl and what she’s facing, partly because of the authenticity that Wallis brings, but also because she has come to stand in for an entire world in crisis. How can any of us survive in the face of disaster? Must we behave like beasts in order to do so? Does mercy have a role?

In its most moving moments, Beasts of the Southern Wild answers yes to the latter question. “You got to take care of people smaller and sweeter than you are,” Hushpuppy’s teacher tells her at one point, a lesson carried through in the delicate way she picks up a chick to listen to its heartbeat. In that moment and others – a shared meal, a quiet dance, Hushpuppy’s memories of her mother – Beasts of the Southern Wild suggests that mercy and beauty have their place, even in the muddiest spots on earth.