“You know, when you’re little, you have more endurance than God is ever to grant you again. Children are man at his strongest. They abide.”
Lillian Gish spoke those lines in The Night of the Hunter, and they fit Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), the indomitable 6-year-old protagonist of Beasts of the Southern Wild, to a T. Like Hunter, Beasts is a surreal Southern fantasia on endurance and survival. While the villain in Hunter is one person (a stand in for the Biblical devil), in Beasts, both humanity and nature are in a state of total collapse. It’s a little girl against the end of the world—and she won’t back down.
Hushpuppy lives with her ill father, Wink (the remarkable baker-turned-actor Dwight Henry) in a couple of shacks in “the Bathtub,” a beautiful, terrifying, achingly poor wilderness on the Mississippi delta. Tough love is the natural order of things in the Bathtub, where the scorn of the world on the other side of the levies is returned in full measure by these fiercely independent, self-sufficient (and hard-drinking) folks.
Doom is in the air. The ice caps are melting; the delta floods; and the far-off government is a source of terror. The imagery is as wild as the subject matter; Beasts is lovely to look at.
Most of the film is presented from Hushpuppy’s point of view. (It is at its least effective when the pov shifts away from her.) We see the world as she sees it: dangerous, bewildering, beautiful. And magical: Her memories of her mother are heartbreaking; an imagined maternal reunion at a floating whorehouse is wondrous.
The screenplay was written by the director, Benh Zeitlin, with Lucy Alibar, who adapted it from her play. It’s almost impossible to imagine this material played on the stage, because the film is so grounded in the water, mud and crawling, wriggling life of the delta. “Everything in the world is meat,” characteristically blunt teacher Miss Bathsheba (Gina Montana) explains to Hushpuppy and the other children in the Bathtub’s school. “You’re meat, too.”
The film meanders a bit in the last third, as this strange world is haunted by the arrival of giant, marauding hogs. It’s a daring conceit that plays better than it can be described; still, it only works because of young Wallis’ fierce appeal in their penultimate showdown.
And, happily, the monstrous hogs do not play a part in the film’s haunting final images, as the retag survivors of the Bathtub, lead by Hushpuppy, march toward the camera (and eternity). Is this the end of the world? If it is, they won’t go without a fight.