Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is a little black girl who lives with her daddy, Wink (Dwight Henry), in the Bathtub, a small, ramshackle Louisiana riverside township of rundown rummies, long-in-the-tooth hippies and out-and-out outsiders. This is the community of the other, the one that doesn’t think of itself as a victim even as it falls off the map: hell, it doesn’t even enter into Mitt Romney’s 47%. They live on the margins in the wetlands, happy to be forgotten and left alone, but the world is changing and Hushpuppy dreams of terrifying giant hogs, old creatures that will be released by the melting ice of the Arctic and will descend on their community, destroying everything in an end-of-days stampede.
Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild caused a great deal of critical buzz after its premiere at Sundance followed by its entry in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes, and the praise was amply justified. Zeitlin’s film approaches a section of society that is often generically ghettoised in worthy social realism. His mixing of poverty with a rich strain of dark Gothic fantasy does have some problems, but the exhilaration of a film that refuses to tick the usual boxes and prefers to follow the chaotic breathless journey of its main character and narrator is well worth the ride. Hushpuppy herself is an admixture of Huck Finn, Pippi Longstocking and Dennis the Menace; she’s an ASBO Alice in Wonderland, but all that said, she’s also herself, a perfectly original angry unique little girl. She lives near her dad Wink – but crucially not with him – but Wink is ailing. Along with the awakening Lovecraftian aurochs, there’s a very real storm brewing and flood is coming, and Wink’s wrung out body is at the wrong end of a lifetime of alcohol and neglect. Hushpuppy makes sense of her own dilemma on her own; she draws her own history of the universe on the walls of her shack; tends to her animals and communicates with her long-lost mother, who she now feels she must find if everything is going to be alright. She even attends school occasionally, but, being Bathtub, it isn’t exactly a Michael Gove-approved academy. ‘You are all meat,’ the teacher tells her wards – that is, when she’s not preparing voodoo medicine.
The music, cinematography, the sense of place, and the wonderful narration Hushpuppy provides – ‘The world belongs to us. It was made for us’ – creates a bold, challenging vision and, although moving, the film never descends into mawkishness. It never asks for sympathy – ‘No tears,’ Wink shouts at Hushpuppy. However, there is a danger that in the fireworks (quite literally at times) and the yelling and whoops of celebration as well as the millennial excitement and dread, the film might remain oddly comforting. Hushpuppy’s empowerment seems a part of the fairy tale skeleton of the plot. A corrective might be Roberto Minervini’s Low Tide, which premiered at Venice this year, and which tells a very different story of a child’s resilience in the face of awful parental neglect. The two films would make for an interesting double bill.
That said, Hushpuppy’s mission is really to stand alone. And this is a film that weaves its fascinating magic and leaves all other questions for another time.