‘Beasts’ brings magic to the South

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Men, women and children parade through the streets of a swampy neighborhood, and homemade alcoholic beverages are consumed in unmarked bottles, the children burn Roman candles as they run. This community is called the Bathtub, and life is different here. First-time director Benh Zeitlin creates an expressive and signature film that clearly stems from a deeply rooted respect for the human spirit and its will to create normalcy among chaos. Set to echo the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” seamlessly knits different aspects of the human condition to create a collage of suffrage, hope and redemption. At the core, it hopes to instill pride in our uniquely human ability to act not only with our minds but also with our hearts.

A 6-year-old girl, Hushpuppy, lives with her father, Wink, in the Bathtub — a Delta community at the southernmost edge of the Earth. The Bathtub faces a unique predicament. The rapidly melting ice caps and a forthcoming hurricane threaten all of its citizens. Wink’s tough love approach to parenting is meant to prepare Hushpuppy for a time when he’s no longer there to look after her. After Wink contracts an illness, the temperatures mysteriously rise, and so does the urgency to prepare Hushpuppy for the imminent. As the ice caps melt, a swarm of large prehistoric creatures called aurochs rise from their icy time capsules and head for the Bathtub. When Wink’s health quickly deteriorates, Hushpuppy decides to go on a quest to track down her long lost mother.

Zeitlin’s combinations of fable with crude unrelenting realism make this coming-of-age story an allegorical nod to those living in the forgotten margins of life. Cinematographer Ben Richardson paints a dreamy landscape where nature rules and everything else abides. The Bathtub looks like images we’ve all seen before, but it also feels extraordinarily alien. It’s beautiful and cultured, but it’s also dangerous and inhospitable.

One of the films greatest achievements is its use of nonprofessional actors. Quvenzhane Wallis, who plays 6-year-old Hushpuppy is nothing less than magnificent. As our occasional narrator, she encompasses everything the film wishes to say. She’s the embodiment of what the Bathtub stands for: persistence. The Bathtub has two identities, that which is seen and that which occurs inside the mind of Hushpuppy. This perception through juvenile eyes takes on a form of spiritual enlightenment, where we can witness things for what they are without prejudice.

Outside the levee gates lies a world that Wink can only describe as “ugly.” Factories outline the flat horizon, releasing puffs of pollution into the air. Beyond the gates is a world based on artificial needs and wants. Unlike the outside world, the people of the Bathtub fish, drink, dance and raise their children to be self-sufficient. Teaching takes on an academic, as well as a spiritual, role. Miss Bathsheeba, Hushpuppy’s teacher, tells her students that the most important thing that can be taught is to “take care of people smaller and sweeter than you are.” From this vantage point, one would not assume the Bathtub is in a critical state. The term day-by-day living does not take on a negative connotation. Life in the Bathtub dismantles the clock of life, but does not forget it. This philosophy enriches each day with rejuvenation and opportunity, life once again becomes open to interpretation.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is clearly a labor of love for Zeitlin. The film’s insightful richness invites critical analysis from every angle. The characters fleshed-out personas and complexities complement the detail-orientated set design. Like any good movie, metaphor does not take center stage; its brute sensory impact is what keeps the film afloat. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” radiates authenticity, and it triumphs at that. It’s a restless mongrel of magical realism, just like its pack of wild beasts that play more of a supporting, symbolic role. Once the film fulfills its axis, it falls back to Hushpuppy. She’s inhabited a new world, one where love is tough. Surrounded by a small village willing to give her the necessary tools to carry on, Hushpuppy must survive. She is the gatekeeper between normalcy and chaos.