Six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is growing up in “The Bathtub,” a backwoods bayou located on the swampy side of a Louisiana levee. The self-sufficient tomboy divides her days attending to her sickly father (Dwight Henry) and she lives in harmony with a handful of other hardy refugees from civilization.
Hushpuppy feels sorry for the children growing up in nearby New Orleans because they eat fish wrapped in plastic and have been taught to fear the water. While those city kids were confined to strollers and baby carriages during their formative years, she’s been free to explore her surroundings that are teeming with vegetation and wildlife.
Yet, her existence is far from idyllic, because she pines for the mother whom her widowed father explained simply “swam away” one day. The heartbroken little girl tries to fill the void via flights of fancy. Using her vivid imagination, she has imaginary conversations with her long-lost mother.
Hushpuppy is also concerned about her father’s failing health and by an ominous foreboding that climate change is ruining her surroundings. She’s been warned by Miss Bathsheeba (Gina Montana), a sage soothsayer, who is her surrogate mother, that “The trees are gonna die first, then the animals, then the fish.”
So unfolds Beasts of the Southern Wild, a compelling tale which is also the directorial debut of Benh Zeitlin. The movie, an early entry in the Academy Awards sweepstakes, is a surreal fairy tale about the prospects of the planet that richly deserves all the accolades it received at Sundance, Cannes, and other film festivals.
Considerable credit goes to Quvenzhané Wallis, a talented youngster who not only portrays protagonist Hushpuppy but narrates the film as well.
A clever mixture of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, the movie repeatedly reminds us of a pre-pollution, pre-digital era when children were encouraged to plunge headlong into nature to experience the world firsthand rather than through electronic media.
The movie is a visually enchanting fantasy told from the perspective of a naïve waif untouched by the 21st century.
Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for profanity, mature themes, child imperilment, disturbing images, and brief sensuality. Running time: 91 minutes.Distributor: Fox Searchlight.