It has the contours of a dream. The setting of Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild is a ramshackle settlement of temporary structures one step out of the mud of the Mississippi Delta. Folks call it The Bathtub, and indeed its situation downriver from New Orleans, a short rabbit hippity-hop from the Gulf, means that the water is always there, underfoot and sometimes overhead, waiting for its chance.
In this bio-disaster paradise lives a little girl named Hushpuppy Doucette (first-time actress Quvenzhané Wallis), who spends most of her time in her very own treeless tree house, with her father Wink (Dwight Henry, also a non-pro), a basically gentle but continually troubled man most people would call a no-good, drugged-up jailbird. Wink lives on a pile of junk in a lean-to and does his best to care for six-year-old Hushpuppy, but most of the time she’s on her own. And so her adventures take on the trappings of a fairy tale, a child’s point of view of a place even the most prosaic grownups would find strange and frightening. She calls The Bathtub home, and after spending time with her, so do we.
But big changes are coming. Hushpuppy, Wink, Walrus, Little Jo, Peter T, Jean Battiste, and the rest of the village’s residents are about to pass through an ordeal. Hushpuppy, who likes to draw and narrates the film for us, has seen it coming in her nightmares — a pack of giant wild boars/bulls thundering across the plain — but of course that’s only symbolism. Or is it? One day our lil’ heroine wakes up in a brand new blue dress and takes a trip to the Elysian Fields Floating Catfish Shack, where she can eat all the fried fish and grits she wants, and where Fats Waller sings “Until the Real Thing Comes Along.” It’s just like heaven.
Director Zeitlin and playwright Lucy Alibar adapted their screenplay from Alibar’s one-act play Juicy & Delicious, and filmed it in Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes in Louisiana, where they found the amazing young Ms. Wallis and most of the rest of the cast. The wondrous, hallucinatory Beasts of the Southern Wild is unlike practically anything else on commercial screens these days. For that reason — alongside Zeitlin and Dan Romer’s gorgeous music score and the production’s privileged glimpse into yet another facet of the American tragedy now called Katrina — it’s the event of the summer for movie audiences hoping to escape the overly familiar.