Film Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild

One of the most lavishly praised films of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and a Camera d'Or winner at Cannes, <i>Beasts of the Southern Wild</i> teeters on the edge of embracing the clich&#233;s of "lyrical poverty" movies, but is anchored in complex r
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To an outsider's eye, the world of the bright, sensitive, unselfconsciously intuitive Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is one of deprivation, ignorance and grinding poverty. Her mother is long gone—dead, divorced or decamped for parts unknown; who can say?—her father Wink (Dwight Henry) an underemployed drinker in declining health, and her friends are a passel of equally under-parented children and scruffy animals: chicks and chickens, a rheumy-eyed Chihuahua mix, the pot-bellied pig who's probably destined for a stew pot sooner rather than later.

But to Hushpuppy, the world is a miraculous place whose beating heart is echoed in the chests of all creatures great and small, even the giant prehistoric boars her schoolteacher describes to her motley charges. Wink loves the (literally) backwater community locals call "The Bathtub," a brutally beautiful but deceptively fragile ecosystem, and whatever his faults as a parent, he's teaching Hushpuppy to live in it too. But Wink's health is precarious—he doesn't talk about it, but from week to week getting a deep breath comes harder and he's less up to the day-to-day work of scratching a subsistence living from the water and dirt—and his decision to ride out a Katrina-level hurricane rather than evacuate proves disastrous. He and Hushpuppy aren't alone when the rains stop—a handful of equally addled, obstinate lifers hunkered down in their own shacks and lived to tell the tale—but the Bathtub is damaged, the water poisoned, and emergency crews are scouring the countryside in search of survivors they can rescue and place in clean, well-stocked shelters until such time as they can be relocated, a prospect the locals regard as a fate worse than death.

Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin's first feature, is a stunner: You may have reservations about its depiction of catch-as-catch-can bayou poverty as an improvement over, say, the institutional poverty of the best-run urban housing project, but Zeitlin's visuals make his case. Hunger is hunger, but a feast for the soul can offset the ache of an empty belly—not for everyone, perhaps, but for those connected to a community in which a year of bayou sunsets is infinitely more nourishing than a year of fast-food fries.