For a little girl, Hushpuppy thinks some big thoughts. And for a little movie, the so-beautiful-it-hurts drama "Beasts of the Southern Wild," which won top honors at this year's Sundance Film Festival, packs some big ideas.
"The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece, the whole universe will get busted," muses Hushpuppy, a 6-year-old girl living in a ramshackle Louisiana Delta town known to the locals as The Bathtub.
It's a place made up of small pieces. The flotsam and jetsam of the Mississippi has washed up here and the locals have cobbled it together to create their lives separate from "the dry world," as they call it. Hushpuppy (played by newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis) lives in a decrepit trailer on stilts, connected by a rope to a similar trailer in which her daddy, Wink (Dwight Henry), lives. Hushpuppy's mama is long gone, represented in the girl's mind by a tank top she left behind and a distant beacon on the horizon.
Wink is a tough father, prone to violent outbursts. He's also determined to teach Hushpuppy survival skills, such as how to catch catfish by hand or how to tear apart a crab to get to the meat.
What Hushpuppy will need to survive is key in director Benh Zeitlin's amazing movie. There are storms, and floods that threaten to drown The Bathtub. And, in Hushpuppy's world view, there also are the melting icecaps and the glaciers that unleash the ancient Ourocs, ferocious and huge boarlike creatures that are stampeding the land en route to The Bathtub.
Zeitlin, co-writing with Lucy Alibar (based on her play), is a collaborative director with a naturalist style and an anthropologist's eye. He hired nonactors (Henry, who's powerful as the hard-living father, was a baker in New Orleans) and employed real-life settings, cobbling together sets from whatever was at hand. He freely mixes evocations of Hurricane Katrina with various mythologies including a few invented for the film through the prism of an exceptional child.
That little girl, Quvenzhané (pronounced kwuh-VAWN-zhuh-nay) Wallis, is utterly amazing. She imbues Hushpuppy with wide-eyed wonder and infinite wisdom, with a completely guileless onscreen presence and a lucid voice-over that makes you believe a little girl could be thinking about the cosmos and her place in it.
"In a million years," Hushpuppy says early in the film, "when kids go to school, they're gonna know once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub." A million years is a long time, but for a great many years from now, when film lovers get together, they're going to know once there was a character called Hushpuppy, and she was in a movie called "Beasts of the Southern Wild."
'Beasts of the Southern Wild'
A little girl explores life in an isolated Louisiana Delta town that's a world unto itself, in an achingly beautiful film.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.
When • Opens Friday, July 20.
Rating • PG-13 for thematic material including child imperilment, some disturbing images, language and brief sensuality.
Running time • 91 minutes.