When I was a little girl we lived on a small farm up the bank of the Choptank River on the eastern shore of Maryland. Some days I saw no others but mommy, daddy and my baby sister.
I knew where vegetables came from, and the chicken mommy fried. Sometimes on Sundays we might go to a crab feast at a neighbor's farm: a bushel of fresh caught crabs boiled up in peppery seasoning, dumped out on the newspaper covered picnic table. We ate the crabs with biscuits and drank sweetened tea.
Later our family moved to the industrial heartland and my father took a factory job. We lived in a house on a street with sidewalks. I was amazed at the number of people around. I would sit on the front porch and greet them as they went by and invite them to come in.
A child focuses all her attention on the small world around her and knows all about it and figures everything out, but then the acts of man and acts of god can force sudden enormous changes.
In "Beasts of the Southern Wild" a little girl by the name of Hushpuppy lives with her daddy in a tiny Louisiana Delta islet called the Bathtub. They have a handful of neighbors, black and white, young and old. The schoolteacher gives the few children of the Bathtub all they need to know.
Hushpuppy draws to make a record of her life in the same style as our cave dwelling ancestors.
The people of the Bathtub catch crawfish and fresh water crabs. They grow vegetables and keep some chickens and pigs and goats. They have many more holidays, according to Hushpuppy, than the people on dry land do.
Wink, her daddy, takes her on a boat ride in a remarkable boat that seems to have been put together from the backend of a pickup truck and other useful pieces. They ride over by all the oil refineries in the bayou, and he shows her their ugliness in contrast to the beauty of the Bathtub.
But daemon drink is killing Wink and some of the other folks there are falling down drunk. Hushpuppy's daddy gets wild when he drinks. Sometimes she calls out to her momma who may have died or may have gone away, we don't know for sure.
The teacher explained how everything on earth is connected. Hushpuppy, who listens to birds and the heartbeat of the pig and even to the leaves, is so in tune with her surroundings that she fears she is responsible for the whole world. And a storm is coming.
In her child's mind the manmade environmental disasters that are causing the polar ice to melt are unleashing 'iced age' frozen aurochs that are now thundering towards the Delta.
But hurricane Katrina is not imaginary and in its aftermath she must lead a heroic journey to save her dying father. How will the people of the Bathtub survive the onslaught of the salt water that kills the fresh water animals and plants they depend on? How will they survive an "evacuation" to a relief shelter, which for them is a round up into a prison?
"Beast of the Southern Wild" is a uniquely special film, unlike anything I have ever seen, with an outstanding cast. Dwight Henry's searing performance as Wink is achingly wrought.
Quvenzhané Wallis is powerfully fresh and honest and wonderful as Hushpuppy!
The film is described as a magical fantasy, mainly, I think, because the events are viewed through the eyes of a child who knows everything about her little world and must figure out how to deal with the changes that are coming. The places in the film are so remote to most of our lives as to seem unreal and events there take on a dreamlike quality. The cinematography and editing help to draw the viewer in so you can lose yourself in the places in the film.
Long after the film was over I thought about the Bathtub and Hushpuppy. To paraphrase her commentary: A million years from now, when children go to school, I hope they will have a beautiful living planet earth to study, and will think back to the times when we helped to save it.
Photo: filming an interior scene with Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry. www.beastsofthesouthernwild.com/
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Directed by Benh Zeitlin; Produced by Josh Penn, Dan Janvey, Michael Gottwald
Written by Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin
Starring Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry
Music by Dan Romer, Benh Zeitlin
Cinematography Ben Richardson; Editing by Crockett Doob, Affonso Gonçalves
92 minutes, PG-13