On paper, Beasts of the Southern Wild has one of the most depressing movie plots you've ever heard of. It follows a neglected six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) who lives in a dilapidated shack across from her unstable father's dilapidated shack. Sometimes her father (Dwight Henry) disappears for days at a time, leaving her to scrounge up meals for herself. Her mom is gone. And, oh yeah, they live in an isolated area called The Bathtub just outside of New Orleans, which is completely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
Yet somehow the film is beautiful and uplifting. Sure, there are some sad moments. But since we see the world through Hushpuppy's vivid imagination, we see a story about a tight-knit community that values its freedom above all else, instead of a depressing tale about a group of people bogged down by extreme poverty.
We first meet Hushpuppy before Katrina strikes. She seems to be a happy, relatively carefree child who runs free in the wilderness surrounding her shack. During those rare times when he's around, her father prepares meals of fresh chicken that they savor together. Hushpuppy's school, with its eccentric teacher, would seem odd by conventional standards, but she seems to enjoy the unusual lessons.
In one such lesson, the teacher points to a tattoo on her upper thigh to help illustrate the legend of the prehistoric beasts called aurochs that once roamed their isolated bayou community. Hushpuppy frequently conjures up images of the beasts stampeding towards her when she's feeling particularly anxious -- like just before Katrina strikes.
Many citizens of The Bathtub, which is cut off from New Orleans by a huge levee, refuse to evacuate their beloved land before the hurricane. They would much rather be free in their ravaged shacks than cooped up in a government-run gymnasium, hospital or arena in the city -- even if it means dying in the storm.
After the hurricane has wreaked its havoc, Hushpuppy and her father venture out beyond their shack in a rickety old boat to find out who's still around. They manage to find the proprietors of the local bar, as well as Hushpuppy's teacher and a few students. The group bands together to share meals, keep each other company and resist the ongoing forced evacuation attempts.
Wallis delivers a stunning performance as Hushpuppy. In fact, it's probably the best performance I've ever seen by anyone so young. Henry is also amazing as her father (it's hard to believe he's a New Orleans baker and not a seasoned actor).
Director Benh Zeitlin has managed to make a truly unique film that eschews stereotypes about poverty. It is beautiful, not sad, and you leave the theater feeling confident that young Hushpuppy is going to be just fine. She's a survivor.