Beasts of the Southern Wild portrays a young girl learning to harden herself to survive. But it does a lot of rambling to tell a dead-end story.
Independently filmed in Louisiana, the movie won the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival this year. Director and co-writer Benh Zeitlin puts first-time actor Quvenzhané Wallis, 6 years old at the time, front and center as "Hushpuppy." The fantastic Wallis carries the film, the story told from her perspective.
In interviews, Zeitlin has indicated the point of the film is to celebrate the fierce independence of the people who demand their right to live south of the levee on a flood-threatened Delta in Louisiana. In the movie, that community is called "the Bathtub" and Hushpuppy lives there with her father.
Against its will, this community is forced to evacuate, taken in by a "processing facility" that provides medical care and apparently attempts to civilize residents, meaning a dress and braids to tame Hushpuppy's hair.
The community escapes, preferring independence to civilization even if it means danger. It is clear these people are misfits (some borderline crazy) but unclear why they chose a mostly miserable existence on the outskirts of industrialized life. And although Hushpuppy has never known anything different, her rebel attitude is thriving here. (The movie is rated PG-13 in part for "child imperilment," and Hushpuppy is "imperiled" as a regular part of life.)
The movie plays with comparisons between people and beasts. But ultimately, Hushpuppy separates herself from the animals by embracing her compassion for her father and others. She cannot save them, of course, but what she can do is face down the prehistoric (possibly imaginary) beasts that the movie shows trampling inexorably toward the community.
"I have to take care of mine," she tells them. And her defiance in the face of this mysterious threat is meant to be the sole redemption of the movie.