Part fairy tale, part Hurricane Katrina tale, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” provides a lovely antidote to all the explosions and spandex-wearing of summer movies. It’s the story of 6-year-old Hush Puppy and her daddy, who live in a pair of trailers on an island off the Louisiana coast. Her father is sick and irresponsible and a drinker, none of which is helpful when the storm hits. Most of the people on their island (called the Bathtub) evacuate when told, but Hush Puppy’s father doesn’t want to abandon his home. The floods come anyway, as we know they will, and the movie does an excellent job of playing with viewer expectations about what will happen to the small group of people who insist on staying on the Bathtub.
The earlier, blissful scenes of the town before the storm paint a portrait of an idyllic place, where parties and festivals happen all the time, and everyone knows each other. You can understand why Hush Puppy’s father and his friends are so unwilling to leave. How could they give up on their inundated town?
Hush Puppy, played by newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis, comes across as fierce, independent and courageous. She strides through the film in rain boots, jean shorts, a tank top and gorgeously untamed hair. It’s a fantastic, naturalistic performance, one of those times where you wonder how in the world the director coaxed her into it.
The small group of local diehards bands together and pools resources. At first it seems possible that they can ride out the disaster together, but as Hush Puppy’s teacher points out, the flooded salt water will ruin the land even if it recedes. The sterile, sad world of the official refugee centers is never presented as a feasible answer for this group. When they are on dry land, the group is angry, irrational, prone to near-violent resistance. One of the many striking images in this film is Hush Puppy, hair pinned down, forced to wear a pretty blue dress in a sea of children in a daycare center. It’s an astute symbol of the conditions of rescue.
She also has visions of giant aurochs released by breaking ice at the poles. It’s her way of understanding the darkness of what’s to come, and the film takes occasional breaks to follow the journey of these monstrous horned pigs as they get closer and closer to her.
By the time they arrive, she’s already seen the worst. Be prepared for a pretty heavy degree of heart breakage. The storm leaves behind a near-unfixable mess. She’s often in danger or in the care of adults who don’t seem equipped to look after her. This includes both the adults from home and the ones in the refugee facility. Because of this, it’s hard to say what should happen for her. Her father, despite his faults, obviously cares for his daughter and wants to ensure that she can take care of herself should he disappear from her life.
By turns funny, sweet, tragic and epic, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is probably the most unusual film you’ll see this summer. Its characters are often trapped by how they see and understand the world, but you never stop empathizing with why they’re behaving the way they do. And little Hush Puppy is brave to the extent that she should probably be the one riding a horse through the Scottish wilds in promotional material for Pixar’s “Brave.” It’s not a bad summer when multiple movies are showcasing young women rising above their circumstances through their own strength of character and desire for a better world.