The central location of Beasts of the Southern Wild is the mythical Bathtub, a bayou community separated from a Southern Louisiana city by the levee that protects it. At the heart of the film, the Bathtub is both familiar and foreign, a land of elevated homes made from discarded materials. Not quite fact or fiction, much like a child’s imaginative understanding of the world, Beasts of the Southern Wild exists in this twilight realm between waking and dream, removed just enough from reality to have an air of fantasy, but just close enough to allow the discovery of tangible truths.
Told from the perspective of six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), Beasts of the Southern Wild introduces us to the diverse but staunchly united group of outsiders who inhabit the Bathtub. Hushpuppy lives in her own home next door to her father Wink (Dwight Henry), her house an old trailer propped up on oil drums, his a dilapidated shack. Often left to her own inquisitive and creative nature due to her father’s unpredictable behavior and disappearances, Hushpuppy is constantly pondering reality and the nature of things, keeping a pictorial diary of her life. Whether feeding her menagerie of almost-feral pets, learning bayou survival basics from Wink, celebrating a local Bathtub holiday or finding out about nature or global warming in an informal classroom/boathouse, Hushpuppy seems to have a charmed existence despite the extreme poverty and substandard education that would be defined by outsiders as disadvantaged. However, her life is soon upended by a series of events seemingly interconnected through global climate change: a Katrina-like disaster that profoundly affects the Bathtub way of life, ancient creatures called aurochs awoken by the melting of the icecaps, and an unknown illness that begins to consume her father.
A group of filmmakers and artists calling themselves “Court 13″ are behind Beasts of the Southern Wild, and they display an imagination on par with Hushpuppy’s own. Made on a meager budget and using local actors, locations and props, Beasts has a dense and rich level of regional detail – some favorites are the pickup-truck-bed-turned-boat that Hushpuppy and her father go fishing in, and the school teacher’s tattoo of aurochs that Hushpuppy misinterprets, giving her a terrifying creature she can imagine within her frame of reference. It’s often hard to tell if the script inspired an individual detail or if a found detail influenced the production, making it impossible to give credit to what came from Lucy Alibar’s original play, Benh Zeitlin’s direction, their combined development of the script, or one of the numerous producers, editors or designers that make up Court 13.
And while the hurricane that floods the Bathtub and destroys countless lives seems like an obvious illusion to Katrina and its aftermath, Beasts of the Southern Wild is far too complex to simplify into one straightforward allegory about one event or idea in particular. Filled with all the wonder, horror and joy that a child experiences in life, Beasts is a richly woven coming-of-age tale that features stunningly human performances from its untrained actors, especially the photogenic Wallis. Thanks to writing and cinematography that capture the beauty of the region’s actual inhabitants, Beasts is also a fierce, beautiful, unapologetic celebration of a fierce, beautiful, unapologetic group of people. And with a rebellious but playful spirit, Beasts is also a unique artistic statement from truly iconoclastic filmmakers. Unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, Beasts of the Southern Wild is that rare independent film that deserves to be celebrated and shared.