Delta delight

Believe the hype: Beasts of the Southern Wild is poetic and enchanting

Dwight Henry and Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild.

FILM In the annual hothouse atmosphere of Sundance, even mediocre or bad new American narrative features are cocooned in an atmosphere of self-congratulation — at least until the reviews come out a few hours later. Movies that are actually pretty good invariably become "great" for the duration of the festival; with everyone searching for something to hyperventilate about, one need only light a birthday candle to set off a roman candle of hyperbole. Most of these movies come out a few months, waving their festival awards, only to look significantly diminished in the sober light of day (and decreased altitude). Suddenly they're, well, just pretty good.

With the occasional exception, of course. Six months after winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance (and a Cannes Camera d'Or), Beasts of the Southern Wild proves capable of enduring a second or third viewing with its originality and strangeness fully intact. Magical realism is a primarily literary device that isn't attempted very often in U.S. cinema, and succeeds very rarely. But this intersection between Faulkner and fairy tale, a fable about — improbably — Hurricane Katrina, is mysterious and unruly and enchanting, an imaginative leap of unusual ambition and accomplishment for a first feature.

Ostensibly based on a stage play — co-scenarist Lucy Alibar's Juicy and Delicious, said to be a bluegrass musical — Benh Zeitlin's film is wildly cinematic from the outset, as voiceover narration from six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) offers simple commentary on her rather fantastical life. She abides in the Bathtub, an imaginary chunk of bayou country south of New Orleans whose residents live closer to nature, amid the detritus of civilization. Seemingly everything is some alchemical combination of scrap heap, flesh, and soil. What might look like an unhygienic, frightening, child-abusive nightmare to any Social Services authority is to Hushpuppy a constant playground, and to her elders a sort of pagan-libertarian utopia.

Before the story has gotten properly started there's a community celebration with fireworks, music, guns fired into the air, babies crawling everywhere — a celebration of nothing in particular, at least that we can tell. But as our heroine says, "The Bathtub has more holidays than the rest of the world." It is clear that, for that and many other reasons, its citizens have no use for the rest of the world.

She lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) — albeit in separate ramshackle trailers on stilts — a fierce, erratic man with unknown demons who's seldom outright unkind but acts less like a father than an Outward Bound coach, teaching his charge the tools to survive on her own. (In addition to slopping the livestock and pets, she can already make dinner for herself, lighting the stove with a blowtorch.) But one day he disappears, leaving Hushpuppy without human company beyond the memory of a long-absent mother she nonetheless frequently talks to. When Wink returns, it's in a hospital gown and bracelet; whatever happened, he doesn't want to discuss it.

Soon they have bigger things to worry about, anyway, as "the storm" is coming — prompting all but a few stubborn holdouts (well-fortified by alcohol) to evacuate the Bathtub. Wink and child aren't going anywhere, waiting it out instead in a shack then floating to safety in their boat (a decapitated truck bed).

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