By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Crying isn't proper in the Bathtub, a spit of land south of the levees keeping Louisiana's delta dry. Folks in the Bathtub, a grubby tribe of proud survivors, don't fret about such things. Whatever nature decides they'll find a way around, as generations have before.
Hushpuppy lives with her daddy, Wink, in the Bathtub, separately in tin can trailers with truck tire stilts stemming the tides. "Mama just swam away," this backwoods pixie believes and won't cry about it. Not even when her daddy disappears, leaving a 6-year-old girl fending for herself against the elements, hunger and the fear that somehow she's causing the end of this isolated world.
Residents of the Bathtub and mythical creatures Hushpuppy imagines she unleashed are Beasts of the Southern Wild, and you may not see a better movie this year.
Director Behn Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar crafted a small miracle here, a delicate mix of hardscrabble fact and childish fantasy, tapping the poetry of ignorance from the perspective of a child. This movie — especially Quvenzhané Wallis' stunningly natural portrayal of Hushpuppy — brought me to tears, not of sadness but joy of discovering perfection.
Wallis is lightning in a bottle, plucked from hundreds of auditioners for the role, without any training or experience in acting. She isn't contaminated by show biz rules of how children emote in movies, trusting instincts wiser than her age should allow. Hers is a performance of subtle expressions and lyrical voiceovers, sorting impressions of her surroundings and circumstances, revealing to viewers what life in the Bathtub's squalor means.
"This is the prettiest place on earth," Hushpuppy and generations like her have been taught, which obviously isn't true. "Up in the dry world they ain't got nothin' like we got. They got holidays once a year, fish in plastic wrappers and chicken on sticks. … We who the earth is for."
The defiance of civilization ingrained into the Bathtub's residents is shaken when a Katrina-like storm washes over the community. Hushpuppy worries that she caused it, disrupting the universe's balance with an impetuous act. She learned superstitions and myths in an A-frame schoolhouse, particularly the existence of Aurochs, prehistoric wild boars that will reclaim the earth as ice caps melt. She believes and the Aurochs appear for her, symbolizing the fear she's pushing away on a quest to find the mother who swam away.
Beasts of the Southern Wild has a dreamlike quality, making such fantasy intrusions credible from Hushpuppy's shakily optimistic point of view. It isn't jarring like the dinosaurs in The Tree of Life, or pervasive like the creatures in Where the Wild Things Are. It is simply a child placing self-blame for tragedy, as another might feel responsible for a divorce or death. Hushpuppy carries a lot of emotional weight on her slender shoulders, and Wallis makes one wish to climb into the screen to lighten the load with an embrace. Do not miss this performance, or this quietly astonishing, life-affirming masterpiece.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.