Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity, child imperilment, disturbing images, brief profanity and fleeting sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.27.12
“In a million years, when kids go to school, they’re gonna know that there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived in the Bathtub with her daddy.”
Children create their own reality, defined by what they observe and experience, filtered through what they’ve been taught. Circumstances that adults would find dire, instead become great adventures. Absent any education — any sort of training by parents or other mentors — kids will concoct the wildest explanations for the simplest things ... and the most fanciful reasons for the horrific.
The 9-year-old boy of director John Boorman’s semi-autobiographical Hope and Glory views the London blitz as a time of great excitement — an abandonment of discipline and decorum — with each day bringing a new shattered ruin to explore. This viewpoint never is presented as callous or insensitive; the beauty of Boorman’s 1987 drama — the message to be extracted — is that the human spirit triumphs and endures.
The same is true of director Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature: the challenging, opulently mesmerizing and almost defiantly unconventional Beasts of the Southern Wild. Its protagonist — a 6-year-old girl known as Hushpuppy — is a wild child forced to confront our randomly cruel world on her own terms. She is, nonetheless, resourceful, stubbornly proud and unexpectedly perceptive in the manner of children, who often see through the artifice and social barriers erected by adults.
Hushpuppy (played with astonishing ferocity by Quvenzhané Wallis) lives near but not with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in a ramshackle Southern Louisiana bayou community known as the Bathtub, situated below a levee that separates them from everything. Hushpuppy resides in her own dilapidated home, cooking herself meals of soup and cat food, firing up a jury-rigged gas stove with an acetylene torch.
Wink lives close enough to summon her for chores and the occasional fried chicken dinner, with leftover scraps distributed to a shared dog and stray livestock mostly left to fend for themselves. Wink’s friends and neighbors congregate at a nearby bar: a building held erect by spit, bailing wire and prayer. These adults are falling-down drunk most of the time, their hard-scrabble lives little more than seeking food, eating it and then drifting into an alcoholic stupor.