On the one hand, Sundance and Cannes award-winner “Beasts of the Southern Wild” has been correctly labeled as “magic realism.” It’s the story of a stubborn 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) living with her short-tempered dad, Wink (Dwight Henry), in a waterlogged bayou somewhere in the Mississippi Delta. Told from Hushpuppy’s point of view, the film grooves to her mingling of fantasy and reality, with dreams of giant prehistoric critters coming back to life (out of the world’s melting glaciers) intertwined with the nitty-gritty of existence in this hunter-gatherer squat situated entirely off the grid.
And yet, as the film meanders on, we learn that this is not some postapocalyptic world like in “Cloud Atlas,” but quite close to the here and now, with clean, regulated modern life continuing on the other side of the flood wall. It’s here that the allegory to post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans comes into focus. Those with the money and means live on dry land, the destitute left to fend for themselves amid rising waters.
The Katrina damage left unmended was largely due to government inaction — stemming from the Bush regime’s conviction that government cannot be the answer — but the film muddies the issue. Civilization wants the people of Bathtub back: Federal teams go out rounding up the stragglers, offering them medical care and warm meals, albeit in the sterile conditions of an evacuee camp.
The Bathtub squatters, however, see their shacks built up of accumulated debris, their barn animals in their bedrooms, the castaway clothes they wear and their dogfood dinners as, well, “rugged individualism.” It may be squalor, but it’s their squalor, a hobo paradise away from any sort of government control, money-based economy or Internet virtuality. The magic, as it were, is in the real. It’s almost a fable-like illustration of what Hakim Bey described in his seminal essay “Temporary Autonomous Zone,” an “intentional community … living consciously outside the law, and determined to keep it up, even if only for a short but merry life.”
And short it may prove to be: Hot-headed Wink suffers from a heart condition, and knows he has to toughen up his daughter while he’s still around for her. Hushpuppy, with the incomprehension of her age, fears her father’s temper while also blaming herself for his illness. As the global-warming-swollen ocean waters rise, Wink makes a fateful decision to try to save their homes by taking out others, blowing a hole in the levee.
Director Benh Zeitlin was magnetically pulled from New England to the trashier side of New Orleans, and brings a great feel for the milieu, the dialect and especially the people, casting loads of nonprofessionals: Henry, for one, was a baker with no desire to act again. Zeitlin relies on a voice-over by Wallis, rambling and precocious, in much the same way that Terrence Malick used a naive young girl’s perspective to frame “Days of Heaven.” Still, interviews with the director suggest an almost mystical belief in the “wisdom” and “morality” of his characters (and actors), something which isn’t always apparent in their on-screen behavior. The junkyard aesthetic will surely charm the crunchy crowd, though germ-averse Tokyoites may well squirm as they watch drunken dad Wink let his daughter eat shellfish off the floor.