Beasts of the Southern Wild

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Drama: Directed by Benh Zeitlin. Starring Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry. (PG-13. 91 minutes. At Bay Area theaters.)

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” explores the fertile and terrifying world of a child’s imagination. Its fertility and its terror stem from the same truth: To the young mind, there is no sealed barrier cleaving reality from fantasy. Not yet. The wall hasn’t been built.

The only wall bisecting one world from another in Benh Zeitlin’s damply poetic debut film is a levee: a barricade separating the people of the Bathtub, a dirt-poor community in the wetness of the Louisiana Delta, from residents of “the dry side,” an alien territory devoid of joy and freedom. Folks within the Bathtub live there knowing a storm is brewing, knowing a flood could sweep them away – and yet they remain, denizens of a lively, watery place that resides somewhere between party central and a Southern Gothic landscape pocked with death.

Guiding us is Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a tiny girl who lives in a trailer with her rough father (Dwight Henry). Sometimes he disappears and reappears in a hospital gown, leaving her for the interim to cook up cat food on the stove. When a teacher-seer-shaman tells the children that there will be a storm, that the ice caps will melt, that prehistoric, ox-like aurochs will thaw out and bring their raging hunger south, Hushpuppy receives this as gospel. It will happen.

And when she punches her daddy in anger – when he stumbles to the ground just as the storm first cracks – she knows that it’s all her fault. “The entire universe depends on everything fitting together just right,” she says. “If you can fix the broken piece, everything can go right back.”

Not much dialogue fills “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” written by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar from Alibar’s one-act play (“Juicy and Delicious”). The script doesn’t explain every last detail; it’s not that kind of movie. Most of its words are heard in Hushpuppy’s pip-voiced narration, and many of them are cryptic. But this, too, is part of the Southern Gothic tradition. Few are more aware of their place in the grand scheme, and less literal in describing it, than characters in a humid Faulknerian fable.

Regarding Wallis’ performance as Hushpuppy: it isn’t one. It’s a fact. Onscreen she simply is, a being as elemental, incontestable and strong as the advancing aurochs. She was 6 when the film was shot, yet the ferociousness of her presence – the anger and wisdom inside her – suggest someone older or ageless. Meanwhile, Ben Richardson‘s cinematography traps the heat and brackish scent of the Bathtub air. His handheld camerawork wiggles just enough to suggest an organism: a worm in the mud, a catfish in the water, a girl toddling through the delta in rain boots. The film is its own beast, and it’s a rare one.‌

Amy Biancolli is a Hearst movie writer. E-mail: datebookletters@sfchronicle.com

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Comment's

Total: 3 Comments

mj says: August 6, 2012 at 11:32 am | Reply

Intense. Speaks and presents a different reality in a little known spot of the Southern landscape.

Gregory says: August 11, 2012 at 12:37 am | Reply

I hear good things about BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, that film is high on my must see films this summer.

Gregory says: September 14, 2012 at 11:11 pm | Reply

A GREAT movie! Well written, well acted, a GREAT movie,

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