Sodden with sentimentality, it still swims with spirit

The film begins in the grime and poverty of a bayou island community nicknamed ‘the Bathtub’. As the plot unravels, life and death in this tiny fishing town are slowly revealed to the viewer through sparse dialogue and arresting visuals. The reality of both these extremes, however, is certainly far more immediate to the characters than the audience.

An early sequence in the film is particularly telling, in which the six-year-old protagonist Hushpuppy (in a truly spellbinding turn by newcomer Wallis) and her father Wink (Henry) engage in an alcohol-fuelled celebration featuring fireworks and resulting in several memorable images. Wink is a hard man, with a lean muscular physique and skin weathered by a life on the breadline. He has a short-fused temper, perhaps fed by his status as a single parent and rapidly failing health. A difficult character to like, Wink is often angry, sometimes brutal and even borderline cruel, and he lashes out at his daughter repeatedly – but we suspect that he’s preparing her for the even tougher environment awaiting her after he’s gone.

Other residents of the Bathtub  behave more like roughly-sketched, mumbling cartoons; presented as a single unit rather than individuals, they behave as if they are sharing a single brain. Most are allowed to do little more than holler in the background and wave their arms on the periphery of the screen. One suspects that this is due to the supporting cast being largely untrained, but nevertheless, they populate the film with authentic faces, both human and animal, creating a convincing, incredibly textural environment. The Bathtub becomes a strange and alluring dreamscape, but every location and prop feels utterly real, as if the crew had found them just so prior to shooting.

Hushpuppy and other impoverished children are educated by Miss Bathsheba (Montana), the only character allowed to construct entire sentences unpunctuated by alcoholic wails or cussing. One morning in the ramshackle school, she warns the children of an impending change that will befall the earth: the melting of the ice-caps will release long-frozen monsters who once roamed the earth and soon will again. One such beast is the Auroch, a giant, horned, boar-like creatures which leaves death and destruction in its wake. After a storm decimates the Bathtub, Hushpuppy must navigate an increasingly tough environment. To survive, she ultimately must earn her place at the top of the food chain.

Based on the play Juicy and Delicious by Lucy Alibar (who is credited as a co-writer of the film along with director Zeitlin), this film adaptation is essentially a charming children’s coming-of-age story – a moralistic fairy tale told through magical realism and dressed up with music video visuals that recalls the energetic camera of City of God and the like. In spirit, however, the film most resembles the independent cinema of the early 1970s, such as Nicolas Roeg’s brilliant Walkabout, in which a white teenage girl flees her demented father and becomes stranded in the Aboriginal outback, forced to fend for her younger brother. In the Bathtub, Hushpuppy struggles to remain resolutely by her father’s side and fight for what little they have, but in both films, these young females are fundamentally alone, elevated beyond gender and race.  

Hushpuppy’s dedication to her father is as heartbreakingly beautiful as young Wallis’s perfectly cast face, but the film’s occasional dabbling in sentimentality, along with an overbearing score and an over-reliance on voiceovers (conversation with Hushpuppy’s absent mother is used as a device for externalising thoughts) often feel contrived, preventing the film from achieving the transcendence it aims for.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Dir: Benh Zeitlin; US drama/fantasy, 2012, 94 mins; Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly, Lowell Landes, Pamela Harper, Gina Montana
Premiered January 3
Playing nationwide 

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