“Daddy says the people who built the levees are afraid of the water”, the fierce and wild six year-old girl named Hushpuppy (Quevanzhené Wallis) explains. “Daddy says we live in the prettiest place on Earth”. This is a swamp-island off the coast of New Orleans that the locals, fittingly, call The Bathtub. Isolated from the world by the levees the keep New Orleans from sinking, the inhabitants of The Bathtub live as close to the earth as possible, existing on their own terms, and surviving from the seafood the floods the landlubbers fear provide. They might be poor by suburban standards but the floods and swamp are abundant enough for them not to starve to spend their days enjoying life.
Hushpuppy is a six year-old born and raised in The Bathtub by her father. Like all of its inhabitants, Hushpuppy is on close terms with the natural world; she, and the other children, are taught by Miss Bathsheeba (Gina Montana) that all living creatures are meat- even little girls and boys are meat for wild animals; while her father, Wink (Dwight Henry) teaches them how to fish for the meat little girls and boys can eat. As Hushpuppy says with wisdom, “I am a little beast in a big wide universe”. She calls out to the world with a piercing scream.
The relationship between Hushpuppy and her father Wink (Dwight Henry) is one of the most interesting father-daughter relationships that I have seen on film. Wink would never win a father-of-the-year award, but it doesn’t mean he doesn’t love Hushpuppie. As a father, Wink does what he thinks is best for Hushpuppy, and though he is wrong on several accounts, it is hard to judge what is best when you grow up in a community that floats on The Bathtub. Wink want Hushpuppy to be a survivor, and makes her promise him one thing: if he is ever too old, or too sick, to drink beer and catch a fish she must set his body adrift and light it on fire. It is not the promise one would expect a six year-old to keep, but it is the way of The Bathtub; Hushpuppy knows this and she respects, loves, and fears her father in return.
The potency of this relationship would not have been possible to portray had it not been for the performances of the leads. Quevenzhané Wallis, who plays Hushpuppy, is a treasure - a little beast in the making. This is a great example of a powerful role finding the perfect actor to play it. Her performance has a determination that is uncommon in child actors. From her first few lines, this little girl from Louisiana will win your heart. It is even more impressive that neither Quevenzhané nor any of her co-stars are professional actors. For most this is their first film and might be their last unless studios act smartly. Although I have read that Dwight Henry isn’t particularly interested in acting... it is unfortunate.
While the film focuses mostly on the relationship between Hushpuppy and her father there is also a subplot of a local myth dealing with frozen Aurochs from the ice-age. The locals believe that the time will come when the glaciers will melt, The Bathub will flood, and the Aurochs will roam the land once again devouring everything on their path. It is a rather colorful version of the rapture, and if you happen to think those aurochs look too real it is because they are - well they are pigs dressed as aurochs with . Once again proof that practical effects are still awesome.
It is also a first for Benh Zaitlin, the director and co-writer, who proves that great art can be found in small budgets. Niether Zaitlin, nor his co-writer Lucy Alibar, are from the bayou but they clearly understand the struggles of the people who have to live in the now. If only more of us did, I suppouse, there would be a lot less anxiety in the present. I wish the best for these up and coming filmmakers, it is great to see new talent with such potential come to the light. Beasts of The Southern Wild already won the Grand Jury Price and Sundance, and the Camera d’Or for best first film at Cannes. I think Zaitlin and crew will be alright; perhaps a best picture nomination at the Academy Awards wouldn't be surprising.