The fantasy-as-Katrina allegory "Beasts of the Southern Wild" could have been terrible--on the one hand, it wants to be a heartfelt drama about a little girl discovering her place in the world in the flood-ravage ruin of her home while at the same time trading on the catastrophic imagery of a devastated bayou and its mix of poor black and white inhabitants. And from the start of director Benh Zeitlin's film, you're worried about the movie's motives or how easy it might be for a well-meaning indie blending magical realism and abject poverty to crash and burn with an excess of the kind of creepy/irritating/simple mythologizing of the poor that sometimes wash up on our screens.
But it's not that movie. In fact, this beautiful film, anchored by non-professional actors inside of a wrecked world is one of the most wrenchingly wonderful fantasies of 2012.
This astonishing movie starts with 5-year-old heroine Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) caring for baby birds and ends with her confronting death itself, as she and her bayou-dwelling community of The Bathtub struggle to survive with the oncoming threat of a flood. It's unthinkable for Hushpuppy and her father Wink (Dwight Henry) to leave the bathtub or flee to the safety of the better-off communities beyond the levee--it's the fault of the people on the other side of the levee that The Bathtub is always getting flooded, and besides, to run away would be to admit defeat, and Wink didn't raise Hushpuppy to quit.
In fact, Wink--a softhearted man who's at the same time a cruel, heartbroken drunk--has raised Hushpuppy to be a little savage taught the mythology of her missing mother (who was so hot, she could make water boil), and the invincibility of The Bathtub itself. Wink doesn't seem to know what to do with a little girl, raising her like a boy, separating them both into their own households.
But when the storm does come, it's devastating, ripping the community apart, washing away homes, livestock, and people. Worse, something is eating away at Wink and primal beasts called Aurochs--thundering, truck-sized boars--are making a beeline for The Bathtub and seemingly for Hushpuppy. This brave little girl sets out to do whatever she can to restore the balance and save her people and her father.
The strength of "Beasts" is in its tiny lead actress Wallis, who sells the bravery, fear, and loneliness of her character. She provides the film's narration, which articulates a child's view of the world based on the myths around her. Everything she is is because of Wink and she's worried what will happen to her world if he's gone. The relationship between the two is poignant because we see how much they need one another but how neither one knows how to deal with the other.
Perhaps the smartest decision on the part of director Zeitlin (aided by his script collaboration with writer Lucy Alibar adapting her own play) is that it never glamorizes of sells us cheap, elevated versions of its characters. Wink is a drunk and so are many of the people who stick behind in The Bathtub. They're not bad people, they're just convinced of their invincibility and the fallibility of the people on the other side of the wall. And it's not so much a black and white story or even a rich and poor story so much as a have a little and have not story.
Blending the real and the fantastic, and fantastic because of its performances, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" might be my favorite film of the year.
Special features and presentation
Zeitlin provides commentary for a collection of cut scenes (14:00, HD--what he feels are "lost" scenes) expand some of the relationship between Hushpuppy and Wink as well as her conflict with the orphan bad girls. Wallis and Henry's auditions (15:15, SD) get spotlighted as well in three segments--one with Wallis alone, one with Henry alone, and one with the two actors together. "The Making of 'Beasts of the Southern Wild'" (22:27, HD) goes behind the scenes of the film's productions from location scouting to casting (including little Wallis' learning that she won the role of Hushpuppy), to the production process. The short "Glory At Sea" (25:44, HD) serves as a sidestory or prequel of sorts to the main feature, directed by Zeitlin with music by Zeitlin and composer Dan Romer. Speaking of the film's score, Romer and Zeitlin are out front for the short "Music" (03:06, HD) which takes a look at the compositions for the film. A second featurette, "The Aurochs" (03:18, HD) delve into the mythology of the primal boars. Finally, the haunting and wonderful theatrical trailer is included on the disc.
"Beasts of the Southern Wild" is available now on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD from 20th Century Fox.