In this season of serial letdowns, so many movies provoke the same sense of sour bemusement. Why did they ever get made? Didn’t anyone know how bad they were from the start? Then there is “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which provokes wonderment pure and simple. How did it ever get made? Did the people who financed and created it know how magical and piercingly beautiful it would be? They couldn’t have known at the outset. Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature evokes life in a surpassingly strange corner of Louisiana through the ecstatic spirit of a 6-year-old black girl named Hushpuppy. There’s no trace of calculation, only artistic ambitions and hopes that have come to fruition in the year’s finest film thus far.
At its core, Mr. Zeitlin’s film is a tale of daughter and father struggling to survive. Wink is not the father that Hushpuppy’s vanished mother would have wanted him to be. He drinks, and gives his little girl ample tastes too. He feeds her slops—”Share wit’ the dog!” he barks—and knocks her around in the course of loving and trying to protect her. There are no boundaries between rage and love in their life, and one of the production’s many mysteries is how a man with no dramatic training—Mr. Henry runs a bakery in the town where the movie was shot—could have delivered such a magnificent performance.
For Wink’s daughter—the angel-faced, fiercely focused girl that Quvenzhané Wallis plays with uncanny grace—he is the source of all wisdom, as well as love. A psychologist might say that he holds her in his thrall by keeping her off balance with wildly unpredictable behavior, but Hushpuppy knows only that she adores him, and believes in him, and will survive thanks to the lessons she has learned from him. Hers is an unconditional love, and it’s not so far removed from what you may feel for this stirring and ultimately thrilling movie
You can make “Beasts of the Southern Wild” into an allegory of anything you want. It is far too detailed and specific to fit easily into general terms. The Bathtub is this place in this time, and how can it “stand for” anything else? This film is a remarkable creation, imagining a self-reliant community without the safety nets of the industrialized world. Someday they will run out of gasoline for their outboard motors, and then they will do — well, whatever people did before they needed gasoline.
I met Dwight Henry, who plays Wink. He owns his own pastry shop, and the casting people had to visit him in the middle of the night because he bakes all night. He said he’s not interested in an acting career. His life is centered on his wife and five children. They are his bedrock, and that is the conviction he brings to the role of Hushpuppy’s daddy. This movie is a fantasy in many ways, but the authenticity and directness of the untrained actors make it effortlessly convincing.
Sometimes miraculous films come into being, made by people you’ve never heard of, starring unknown faces, blindsiding you with creative genius. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is one of the year’s best films.
But let’s all agree: This movie is a blast of sheer, improbable joy, a boisterous, thrilling action movie with a protagonist who can hold her own alongside Katniss Everdeen, Princess Merida and the other brave young heroines of 2012. There are loose threads you can pull at — sometimes the wide-eyed wonder slides toward willful naïveté, and there are moments of distracting formal sloppiness — but the garment will not come unraveled. A lot of thinking has gone into “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” about themes as well as methods, about the significance of the story as well as its shape. And it is certainly rich enough to invite and repay a healthy measure of critical thought.
But its impact, its glory, is sensory rather than cerebral. Let me try out an analogy. Discovering this movie is like stumbling into a bar and encountering a band you’ve never heard of playing a kind of music that you can’t quite identify. Nor can you figure out how the musicians learned to play the way they do, with such fire and mastery. Did they pick it up from their grandparents, study at a conservatory, watch instructional videos on the Internet or just somehow make it all up? Are you witnessing the blossoming of authenticity or the triumph of artifice?
Those are interesting questions. They are also irrelevant, because right now you are transported by an irresistible rhythm and moved by a melody that is profoundly, almost primally, familiar, even though you are sure you have never heard anything like it before.