Beasts of the Southern Wild

Hushpuppy, the little girl at the center of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” lives in squalor and ignorance in an especially water-logged part of the Louisiana bayou nicknamed the Bathtub. Separated from “the dry world” by a levee, Hushpuppy and a couple dozen others live simply but cheerfully, with elevated shacks for houses and roots and folk remedies for medicine. Her primitive circumstances have taught Hushpuppy something basic about the natural world: “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right.” When the balance is upset, things go wrong.

This lyrical film, an astonishingly poignant debut from director Benh Zeitlin (who co-wrote it with Lucy Alibar), addresses that imbalance with clear, beautiful vision and an unmistakable affection for humanity. An allegorical coming-of-age story, it combines magic realism with a decidedly un-glossy, un-prettified view of Hushpuppy’s off-the-grid lifestyle, drawing us into her world as if in a dream. It does this unpretentiously, with gorgeous cinematography (by Ben Richardson), an urgent and plaintive musical score (by Zeitlin and Dan Romer), and unaffected acting.

That last achievement stems from Zeitlin’s use of non-professional actors, including a remarkable 6-year-old named Quvenzhane Wallis in the role of Hushpuppy. She’s also our narrator, describing life in the Bathtub with matter-of-fact eloquence. Her mother “floated away” some time ago, leaving her in the care of her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), who loves her but is ill and irresponsible. Its residents stubbornly independent from the outside world, the Bathtub is essentially a commune, and the children are tended by a teacher, Miss Bathsheeba (Gina Montanna), whose instruction is both academic and philosophical. “This is the most important thing I can teach you,” she says. “You gotta take care of people smaller and sweeter than you are.” People are happy despite the lack of creature comforts; they live here by choice, after all. There is enough food to be found in the bayou. In the Bathtub, any occasion is right for festivities and drinking.

Then there is a serious storm. Living this close to nature means being affected by such things more than the average North American, and the people of the Bathtub do what little they can to preserve their rickety homes and their own lives, eventually resorting to a Noah’s Ark scenario. Hushpuppy is alarmed by the sudden changes to the landscape and the unraveling of her world. “For the animals that didn’t have a Dad to put ’em on the boat, the end of the world already happened,” she says in narration. People from the dry world arrive to evacuate the Bathtub and take everyone to the white, sterile safety of emergency shelters.

Hushpuppy’s journey from that point forward is an enchanting mix of metaphors and reality. Part fairy tale, part Dickensian adventure, the film feels like a poet’s response to civilization’s disrespect for Mother Nature. Hushpuppy must face a scary new world that she had no part in creating, and her loss of innocence stands in for the similar growing pains we all experience.

Comparisons to Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven” and David Gordon Green’s “George Washington” are inevitable and appropriate, as Zeitlin emulates those movies’ sense of reverie and poetry and their ability to find aesthetic beauty in the natural, mundane world. But “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is also very much Zeitlin’s own film, a uniquely poetic view of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances whose artistic, ideological, and visual loveliness will stick with me for a long time.

A- (1 hr., 31 min.; PG-13, some grisly images and some profanity.)