"The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece ... the whole universe will get busted."
So we're informed by Hushpuppy, the preternaturally wise 6-year-old narrator and protagonist of Beasts of the Southern Wild, the debut feature from Benh Zeitlin. The film recounts Hushpuppy's existential awakening, as she learns how to keep the pieces in place in order to best ride out the chaos of the universe.
Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), and a handful of neighbors at the very edge of Louisiana, where the bayou runs into the sea. The natives, who live in houses made of junk, call it The Bathtub: "They think we're gonna drown down here," Hushpuppy explains, "but we ain't going nowhere."
There is trouble coming, though: a hurricane, a death, and as suggested by Hushpuppy's musings, potentially cataclysmic events on a massive scale. She has her own child-like common sense — she knows to listen to animals, for instance — but it's her tough-love daddy who must provide her most critical schooling.
Zeitlin's film was much buzzed about earlier this year at Cannes and Sundance, and it's unlike anything else playing theaters this summer. Told from the perspective of a child, it's a matter-of-fact account of a hardscrabble existence combined with both the lyrical and fearsome aspects of a fairy tale — an optimistic bit of fatalism that's as uplifting as it is disconcerting.
Similarly, its production values range from docu-style hand-held camerawork to gorgeous dreamlike sequences, such as the slightly out-of-focus shots of Hushpuppy running through the dark woods with sparklers. But some clunky CGI made me wish today's filmmakers couldn't reach for fake-reality so easily. (On the other hand, I loved some of the word pictures Hushpuppy created, such as describing a sterile hurricane-refugee center as "a fish tank with no water.")
Remarkably, the film's heady mix of real and unreal is delivered on the tiny but extraordinarily capable shoulders of 6-year-old actress Wallis. Neither she nor Henry, who plays her father, are professionals, yet their performances are riveting.
Beasts is a crazy-cool stewpot, an allegorical fable informed by our knowledge of dangerous reality, like climate change, and mitigated by a child's sense of wonder and steady purpose. Hushpuppy, like her fellow "beasts" — and the term is not meant pejoratively — knows she must live in harmony with the natural order, even its dark sides, such as floods or death. "Everybody loses the thing that made them," explains Hushpuppy. "The brave men stay and watch it happen. They don't run."