"Beasts of the Southern Wild" tries not to romanticize the heroine’s wild world of poverty and primal freedom. The six year old Hushpuppy lives in the Bathtub, a bayou community that lives off the grid. Trained by her father Wink to be self-sufficient, they live separately, surviving off of fish and a livestock, including chickens, goats, and pigs. The alcoholic, occasionally abusive Wink sometimes disappears for days on end, and Hushpuppy misses her long absent mother.
Still, like many children, Hushpuppy loves her father and revels in the Bathtub’s independence. She is told they are better off than those in the “civilized” world. The jubilant opening scenes feature unconstrained revelry. These citizens would rather live and die on their own terms than submit to the regulations of modern life. The plot itself involves melting icecaps, ancient creatures, and a tremendous storm.
Quvenzhané Wallis plays the adorable, strong, and sympathetic Hushpuppy. Her performance is perhaps the film’s greatest asset. The rest of the actors are also excellent, including Dwight Henry as her father. Few films examine a messy father-daughter relationship, in which anger and love go side by side. Very few focus on characters who aren’t white and upper-middle class.
There are several very funny moments and imaginative scenes of whimsy. Hushuppy’s quiet yearning for a mother figure and the sense of community spirit powerfully pervade the film. Though sometimes distracting, the soundtrack conveys a sense of wonder. The beautiful environment is shot mostly with a shaky camera. (Why does destitution often call for a shaky camera?)
However, the film’s loyalties ultimately lie too obviously with the poor and rough heroes. The difference between their world and that of most American moviegoers is demonstrated in a scene in which they gleefully escape from a sterile, prison-like hospital to the bright colors of the Delta. In one troubling sequence, the Bathtub dwellers blow up a levy to reset nature’s equilibrium. How many people did this act kill? The film never addresses this.
The characters express a typical New Orleanian desire to expel sadness with celebration. But, as tough as their lives are, is repression really the best way to live? The idea of dying before being beholden to others is a very American ideal. But "Beasts" doesn’t address the more dangerous, long-term aspects of isolating children from the rest of society, teaching them to fear and loathe the outside world. Hushpuppy’s father has flashes of violence, but this plays into another stereotype about poverty: disadvantaged people tend to be violent.
Many viewers will either ignore or admire these undertones. This is understandable, as the movie is a coming of age tale rather than a political statement. As such, the movie is an original fantasy. But some will find the movie’s messages uncomfortable and ultimately unfulfilling.