Wild Life in the Bathtub

Co-writer & director Benh Zeitlin’s feature debut refuses to tame the beasts

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Rating: PG-13

Grade: A

“Beasts of the Southern Wild,” the savage visual poem from debut director Benh Zeitlin (which he co-wrote with playwright Lucy Alibar), takes us on an adventure from its opening frame, yet what makes it so special and downright impossible to imagine in any other form, is the voice of its young heroine, Hushpuppy (six-year old newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis). She is blessed with rich self-awareness, of a kind lost along the journey towards adulthood.

Zeitlin and Alibar have tapped into the resiliency of childhood, the belief in magic and stories of all sorts, the sense of truth and abiding faith in doing the right thing, and even the raw pain and ability to strike back when trust is broken. Hushpuppy is a piece of modern folklore, a new heroic archetype.

You could compare her, and by extension her story, to the Maurice Sendak classic “Where the Wild Things Are,” and its latest adaptation by Spike Jonze, three years ago, but Max, the young protagonist is older than Hushpuppy and his issues with anger dominate both the character and everything he touches. As realized by Jonze and novelist Dave Eggers, Max is a suburban type, the child of a traditionally broken home and almost from the start, he finds himself railing against what has become a very conventional situation.

Hushpuppy, on the other hand, has seemingly been cursed by circumstance beyond mere broken traditions. She is nearly orphaned, marooned in Louisiana with a sick, alcoholic father, Wink (Dwight Henry), living in porous trailers or in the back of a floating truck bed, surrounded by a community of folks who, like her father, refuse to leave for dry land, but rather than wallow in anger or victimhood, Hushpuppy and Wink and the ragtag people of The Bathtub live fiercely and love the life that they have.

A far better comparison for Hushpuppy and the film might be the work of novelist Toni Morrison. Going all the way back to her debut “The Bluest Eye,” Morrison has captured the raw voices of her characters, usually young girls and women, knee deep in existential and practical everyday blues. History bears down on them, strips them, does everything but bury them alive, and yet still they live, to either tell their tales or have them told by someone else. Pecola Breedlove, the subject of “The Bluest Eye,” endures abuse and neglect from all angles and longs for the one thing that she believes will make her whole and worthy of love – blue eyes – but someone else must present her story to the audience.

It is the telling of her own story that transforms Hushpuppy into someone, somebody that we will remember. She hears the heartbeat of the world, every creature living and mythic, like the aurochs, large wild boars that were once the kings of the world, and strives to give voice to it all. She is in nearly every frame, which, from a performance standpoint, means that Herculean effort went into maintaining a work environment that would support Wallis and insure that she would be able to shine as she does. The simple take on this would be to assume that Wallis is merely playing some version of herself because how else could you explain the narrative nuances to a child of that age, but even that illustrates that there still has to be something special about Wallis.

Regardless, once there were “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and their story was something to behold.

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com

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