Hushpuppy and Wink: They sound like a tap-dancing duo from the 1930s. Actually, they’re the central characters in Beasts of the Southern Wild, a bildungsroman set in a mythical Delta that’s been drowned by catastrophic environmental changes. Directed by Benh Zeitlin, the film stars Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy, a preternaturally wise six-year-old who lives with her alcoholic father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in a water-logged land known as “The Bathtub.”
At the crux of Beasts is Hushpuppy’s roller-coaster relationship with her father. In small strokes, Zeitlin reveals the good, the bad, and the ugly of the duo’s connection. Between beating catfish with their fists, snapping crabs in half, and bouts of fisticuffs, the audience sees the complex father-daughter relation that drives the film. Wallis and Henry (who was a chef in New Orleans before this foray into acting) both deliver powerful performances. They are intensely charismatic and their relationship has a natural intimacy. As Hushpuppy transforms from a whimpering child to a fearless, “gun-toting” warrior, evolution and survival of the fittest take on a new meaning. “I’m the man!” she yells at her dad—and she means business with that war whoop. Whether she’s searching for her estranged mother or arguing with her alcoholic father, the film’s poignant moments never feel contrived.
But not everything works in Beasts of the Southern Wild, namely the beasts of the film’s title. Zeitlin introduces aurochs, which appear at first to be visually compelling and conceptually interesting representations of prehistoric cattle. In the end, however, the beasts don’t deliver, and as a long-standing metaphor, they’re so open-ended that they become a distraction.
A post-apocalyptic coming-of-age story. A lyrical tale of magical realism. A deeply unorthodox domestic drama. Call it what you want. Whatever it is, it has the raw power to send grown men into theater bathrooms, crying like little hushpuppies.