For centuries, the deepest, thickest, and most intimidating swamps of the American South have hidden self-sustaining communities of outlaws: runaway slaves, reservation-averse Indians, pirates, and other refuseniks who wanted to live far away from slave catchers, lawmen, and tax collectors. (Archaeologists have even begun excavations in Virginia's Great Dismal Swamp to study its 19th-century "inside communities." They still need guides to keep from getting lost.)
Beasts of the Southern Wild—an emotionally and visually gorgeous film that's full of newcomers, from its director, Benh Zeitlin, to its tiny star, Quvenzhané Wallis—is set in the Bathtub, a modern-day version. Six-year-old Hushpuppy lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), a man with an explosive temper and an unnamed terminal illness. (Living off the grid has its drawbacks.) Despite his manic- depressive mood swings, he loves and respects his daughter and tries to teach her how to live and feed herself without him—he even gives Hushpuppy her own shack next to his.
The Bathtub is populated with eccentrics who drink together, play music together, paddle boats made from household appliances and spare lumber, and throw boisterous parties. One of Beast's many virtues is its easy depiction of a diverse Southern community getting along—too many movies about the South depend on racial tension for their drama. It's refreshing to see a place like the Bathtub, where poor people aren't necessarily pathetic and where black folks and white folks simply live together in harmony instead of anguish. (Racism and the aftershocks of slavery are obviously huge issues in the South. But there are other stories worth telling.)
But the Bathtub is a precarious place for other reasons, hidden in an eroding and hurricane-battered Louisiana bayou. When the inevitable big storm comes, the residents have to fight nature and forced community-shattering evacuations by the government. As dreamy Hushpuppy wanders through it all, Beasts weaves the magical tapestry of her imagination with the outer world: She picks up animals and holds them to her ear like a telephone, listening for secret messages; she senses a herd of gigantic, ominous beasts lumbering toward her from far away. (There are ominous beasts heading her way, but they're not the ones she's imagining.) The film smartly and delicately blends reality with fantasy, tracking Hushpuppy's childlike way of seeing and coping with her world as it breaks apart.
Critics from Roger Ebert to A. O. Scott in the New York Times are swooning over Beasts, which won the Caméra d'Or prize at Cannes. The praise is completely deserved—Beasts is an epic, invigorating, bittersweet myth of the American South.