The world has ended a lot lately. Besides the zombie apocalypse that has lurched from AMC to CNN, we’ve seen doomsday scenarios brought on by vampires, viruses, aliens, comets, climate change, war, and any other calamity you can think of. Regardless of the method of our destruction, the outcome is usually the same: The real trick isn’t surviving the apocalypse, but surviving your fellow survivors. Everyone will want your stuff and no matter what you do or where you go, life will just suck.
But what if people were better and it didn’t have to be that way? Well, then you end up with Beasts of the Southern Wild, a post-apocalyptic fable that has more in common with Where the Wild Things Are than The Road. First-time feature director Benh Zeitlin hasn’t made a perfect film—Beasts has a tendency to lose its way and wander around until it finds it again—but he’s made one that commands our attention and deserves to be seen. It’s the sort of movie you experience in an emotional, visceral way, and one that keeps replaying in your head long after you’ve seen it.
Beasts’ heroine is Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a 6-year-old girl who lives in a rough-and-tumble bayou community known as the Bathtub. Hushpuppy has a father, a hard-drinking fisherman named Wink (Dwight Henry), but she often seems to be raising herself. She lives in her own house (a rope connects it to her father’s house), tends chickens and a drowsy hog, and fantasizes about her absent mother. We experience the film entirely through Hushpuppy’s eyes and ears, hence the strange and wonderful collision of sharp, grimy realism and hazy fantasy.
Through Hushpuppy’s stream-of-consciousness narration, we learn that the Bathtub is a jubilant, self-sufficient community that has “more holidays than the whole rest of the world.” The village is cut off from the developed world by a levee, and they like it that way. Their only experience with the industrialized cities around them seems to be watching with disgust as an ugly chemical plant on the other side of the levee shoots smoke into the sky.
When a hurricane hits the gulf, the Bathtub doesn’t stand much of a chance. Some flee ahead of the storm, but Hushpuppy and those closest to her decide to tough it out. The whole world doesn’t end, of course, but their tiny one does. When it becomes clear that the waters won’t be receding anytime soon—the levee that protects the nearby city keeps the Bathtub flooded—they’re forced to build a new, floating community on top of the drowned one. In spite of their best efforts, though, the residents of the Bathtub can’t keep the outside world at bay forever. Besides the threat of well-meaning rescuers who want to take them from their homes, Hushpuppy knows something else is coming for them, too: giant, prehistoric beasts known as aurochs have been freed by melting ice caps, and they’re making a beeline for the Bathtub. At least, Hushpuppy thinks they are; since this is her story, that’s really all that matters.
It’s not surprising that Zeitlin’s parents are folklorists. Beasts is a patchwork of fables, folk tales, and fairy tales that feels very much like modern myth-making. It switches gears often, and not always smoothly. By the time Hushpuppy sets off with a band of wild girls to find her mother and ends up aboard a floating brothel called Elysian Fields (one of the film’s most weirdly charming scenes), it feels like you’re watching a distinctly different movie than the one you started with an hour ago. Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar rally beautifully in the end, though.
The filmmakers might spend a lot of time chasing ideas, but at least Beasts has plenty of ideas for them to chase. Not all of them work, but most of them do. The movie is a gorgeous collage of textures and rhythms buoyed by remarkable performances from non-professional actors (both Wallis and Henry make their acting debuts here). This is film as visual poetry, so the narrative feels almost secondary to the images of rebirth and decay that so often take center stage. It feels very much like the hodgepodge it is, but the overall result is a powerful, often elegant tale of a memorable heroine who’d rather bend the world to accommodate her than file off her own sharp edges in order to fit in.