In Beasts of the Southern Wild, 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis, who may turn out to be the youngest actor ever to win an Academy Award) lives an almost feral existence on a wild, low-lying island of the Louisiana coast known as the Bathtub. Hushpuppy narrates her vivid life story in the particular manner of kids. There is no discernible past, nor much more than a shadowy, ominous future. Hushpuppy exists fully in whatever moment she happens to find herself in.
It's a jaw-droppingly good performance from this pint-sized, first-time actor. Not since Victor Erice's 1973 The Spirit of the Beehive has there been such a dreamily accurate depiction of a child caught in events of tremendous import, then tossed by dizzying waves of danger.
There's a storm coming to the Bathtub, and while it's never mentioned by name, the dreadful reality of Hurricane Katrina permeates this film. Populated by societal castoffs and a motley assortment of interdependent human beings, the Bathtub is long overdue for a scrubbing, but it is comfortable, in its own muggy way, for those who live there. It's a tidal pool of defeated humanity, but at the center of it stands this fierce little girl with a will of iron and the lyrical imagination of a natural poet.
Chief among the other residents is Hushpuppy's alcoholic ghost of a father (Dwight Henry). There's also a gaggle of rowdy, perpetually stewed adults and a scattering of begrimed but seemingly happy urchins. But really, this is Hushpuppy's world and everyone else - including her long-gone mother - just lives (or dies, as the case may be) in it.
First-time director Benh Zeitlin cowrote the script with Lucy Alibar, who penned the stage play from which the film is adapted. Frankly, it's hard to imagine this rollicking, magical-realism filled story in any medium other than film (although it bears a resemblance to some fever dreams I vaguely recall having had as a child). Much of the credit for the sheer natural beauty on display here goes to the talents of director of photography Ben Richardson, who plunges you into the sticky-sweet morass of the Bathtub and never really lets you out. The memory of a celebratory sequence involving fireworks left me grinning for days.
Someone's bound to ask: Yes, but what's it all about? To that I can only reply: life, and nothing but, Hushpuppy-style.