Man is a creature. In our rush to congratulate ourselves on a mastery of our world through various technological achievements, we seem to forget this — every day, because we’re rarely forced into a position where our natures have to come to the fore. Take away the things that keep us safe, take away our security in the very ground beneath our feet, and, odds are, we may believe all we have left is the caged beast inside.

Beasts of the Southern Wild charts the impact of this overcorrection in a small community of people who refuse to leave their homes, even in the face of an impending environmental catastrophe. Abandoned by society — and given no promise for the future except a terrible deluge — they scrape out a new existence of emotional detachment weakly patched over by casual debauchery. They have music, feasts of wild game & half-domesticated livestock, and endless bottles of alcohol. They value strength above all else, and while their patchwork culture closely resembles our own, to those of us old enough to see past the posturing, the effect is toxic on their children.

Our inroad to this world is Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a young girl who lives in a house separate from her father, Wink (Dwight Henry). At dinner, he signals her to come get food by ringing a bell strung along a clothesline; the only connection between their two dismal shacks. He doesn’t let her cry, and he swings wildly from distant mentor to angry force of nature. He is giving her the tools to survive but, through inner monologues, we get a sense of her sweeping sense of loss and confusion.

This is not to say she’s incapable of caring for herself. When her father briefly goes missing, Hushpuppy practices self-dependence with practiced ease, viewing the probability of having to eat her own pets with dispassionate pragmatism. Wallis‘s work in making this story come to life cannot be overstated. Rarely has a child actor been given such a strange and almost incomprehensible life to lead in a film, and yet the results here are mesmerizing. There are no seams in this performance, no instances of an outside life coming through. Wallis fully inhabits the role of Hushpuppy, and the thoroughness of the life we see brings us deep into the world of the film.

Equally as important to the sense of immersion and connection is the direction, by Benh Zeitlin, who co-wrote the film with Lucy Alibar. In addition to drawing a stellar performance from his young lead, Zeitlin also manages to create a fully realized world of gorgeous decay. The community of outliers, known as the Bathtub, is a place cobbled together from the scraps left behind by those who knew better than to stay. It is a place that seems as though it was built in the same spirit that made these people refuse to leave: pure obstinacy. Pick-up truck’s cabs are turned into boats, attics are fashioned into floating school houses, and so on.

There is a much more fantastical and symbolic element to this film that I haven’t touched on, primarily because it is the aspect of Beasts of the Southern Wild that could lend itself  most readily to deeper interpretation. I wouldn’t dream of robbing the viewer their own reading of this subplot, but suffice to say that, while it kept me off guard for most of the film, I felt that the resolution was well worth the uncertainty leading to it. Pair this with the film’s powerful final moments, and it lifted what was, at first, an engrossing but straight forward story into a realm of delicate transcendence.

There is so much going on in this world that it sometimes works to the film’s detriment. There are a lot of simple, elemental ideas at play in this movie (the need for nurturing kindness to equate survivalism, or the delicate balance at play in family and nature and society, to name just two), and though every concept is given equal time and care, their confluence becomes a distraction in trying to parse out the primary meaning or message of the film. The lessons aren’t hidden, but the narrative impact and their importance to the characters’ journeys takes some reflection to truly uncover; this is a film that would greatly reward subsequent viewings.

In that same vein, the finer details of the world at large become lost in the narrow focus on this unlikely community. The hints we are given are tantalizing, but their continued vagueness becomes frustrating. So much more could be gleaned in terms of character motivations and the true impact of certain moments if only we were given just a few more glimpses into the world beyond the Bathtub.

But these are complaints born of the sense of investment I felt at viewing the film; they’re shortcomings only insofar as I wanted more of this story, this world, to hold on to and see. Beasts of the Southern Wild shows us a compelling view of the world on the brink of something terrible, and the small things that we may lose in our rush to save ourselves. We are animals, yes, but even a beast benefits from a loving, guiding hand now and then.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is now playing in limited release.

Grade: A-

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