Beasts of the Southern Wild

WHEN THE LEVEE BREAKS: Hushpuppy (Quvenzhan– Wallis) and her dad (Dwight Henry) go boating in 'Beasts of the Southern Wild.'

A gumption-crazed little girl survives what looks like post-industrial living in Beasts of the Southern Wild. She's so cute that she's even called "Hushpuppy." And if you don't count Hushpuppy, this Faulkner-meets–Shirley Temple film is less hypnotic than it seemed to the Sundance audience or to the Cannes jury that awarded it the Camera d'Or.

Hushpuppy (Quvenzhan– Wallis) lives in a waterside squatters' camp called "The Bathtub." A hard-nosed teacher in a makeshift classroom schools her in the facts of life. It's a dog-eat-dog world, and "every animal is made of meat—your ass is made of meat."

The teacher in this swamp town hitches up her clothes to display a $200 custom-made tattoo on her thigh depicting some kind of mythical whangdoodle. That's all the proof Hushpuppy needs that ice-locked beasts of the Stone Age could rise again. Hushpuppy has reveries of glaciers melting. She foresees tusked, piglike monsters slowly advancing; as they come, they tread on miniature buildings like Godzilla.

Hushpuppy tries to bond with her ailing dad, Wink (Dwight Henry). We judge that he's mortally ill, based on the hospital gown and the plastic bracelet he wears when he turns up after an absence. He has come back to the Bathtub just in time. The muddy waters are rising. The government (hiss) orders the villagers to go to a shelter. That's when a storm hits and inundates the town.

Beasts of the Southern Wild's impressionistic self-seriousness is sweetened by Wallis' own feistiness. She strides purposefully through the ooze in her oversize white rain boots. The rapport between daughter and father is unforced. But Wink tries to toughen up his daughter. He barks at her to flex her skinny arms, to display her muscles through the basketball shirt she wears. You can put Hushpuppy on the list with Princess Merida and Katniss: emerging strong heroines, countering a cinema made for a boys-only club.

Bathtub has the funk of the waterfront in an old Popeye cartoon; the residents hold impromptu fireworks shows, and a town crier brings the news. One floating house bristles with sharp sticks, as if someone had designed a barn for a giant porcupine.

The film was loosely based on the play Juicy and Delicious. Thus the movie includes some lowdown food porn. If Bathtub looks like a place where the end of the world happened already, nothing interferes with the idea that Louisiana is all about comfort food. Boiled crabs are served to Hushpuppy, who doesn't know how to eat such creatures. Wink shouts at her to tear the crab apart. The whole room cheers for her when she does; it's an adult initiation over seafood.

Beasts of the Southern Wild visits an offshore platform/dime-a-dance bar/chicken stand, where Hushpuppy gets a meal of peeled gator tail dredged in egg and cooked in hot grease. Fats Waller's "Until the Real Thing Comes Along" burbles away from the next room as the frowsy slip-clad ladies shuffle. Waller sounds as mysterious here as he did accompanying the Radiator Lady's two-step in Eraserhead.

After some flooding, Wink and Hushpuppy go for a float. They use a boat made of the butt end of a pickup truck, with some plastic barrel pontoons and a motor. The sights they see aren't pretty. A drowned, bloated steer, headfirst and twisted along the littered bank, stands in for the human dead who would be scattered after a disaster.

This junk boat is a dream vessel, like the good ship L'Atalante. You can't accuse the film of lacking realism, anymore than you could charge Jean Vigo with not making a strict documentary about the canals of northern France.

Aside from these moments of reverie, however, first-time feature director Benh Zeitlin takes a studiously precious approach to all of this lower-depths life. Too often, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a low-budget, marsh-staged version of Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are. The movie is relentlessly, self-consciously elemental. Wallis is an appealing young actress, but her character is a daughter of the swamp in the same simplistic sense that old movies featured sons of the soil.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

PG-13; 91 min.

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