A sensation in Sundance, Cannes, and points in between, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is set to explode on the nation’s screens this week. My only concern is that Benh Zeitlin’s exuberantly ramshackle exercise in gumbo magic realism may have been a bit oversold.
Unforgettable in its location, the movie is set amid the picturesque dereliction of the southern Louisiana delta, filmed by cinematographer Ben Richardson as a free-form barnyard cum ramshackle, interracial wonderland. The natives call it The Bathtub. “Beasts” is populated mainly with non-actors and, like Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” — the season’s other must-see American movie — it’s a fairytale for adults, made with kids. The protagonist-slash-main attraction is a motherless six-year-old ragamuffin known as Hushpuppy, who is played by the amazing Quvenzhané Wallis with an upswept corona of copper-colored hair and a mouth full of millennial folk jive, not to mention the poise of Shirley Temple and the spunk of Memphis Minnie: “We is who the earth is for,” she matter-of-factly explains in voiceover.
As befits its galumphing title, “Beasts” begins more or less mid-mad carnival, with Hushpuppy front and center and the camera trotting right alongside her. The Bathtub is celebrating, which is to say preparing for, the apocalypse. The polar ice cap is melting, the local school teacher explains, and “Y’all better learn how to survive now.” Survival in this world is part inspired bricolage, part magical thinking, and the rest sheer cussedness. Hushpuppy is left on her own with the disappearance of her irascible father Wink (furiously performed by Dwight Henry, proprietor of New Orleans’s Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Café). She’s hyper-resourceful in a six-year-old sort of way, even if she does nearly set the world on fire. Wink returns (in a hospital gown) just in time for the big storm. The Bath Tub floods. The levee breaks. Humongous prehistoric monster tusked pigs (the eponymous “beasts”) are on the prowl. Hushpuppy, her daddy, and all their friends are forcibly evacuated, maybe …
There’s a bit of Jim Jarmusch drollery in “Beasts”’s calmer, more contemplative moments, a sense of Zora Neale Hurston (or at least the idea of Zora Neale Hurston) in the tall-tale whoopin’ and hollerin’ that characterizes life in The Bathtub, and a sense memory of Les Blank’s backwoods music and eating documentaries in the party scenes. All three precursors are present in the dreamy sequence set in an off-shore bordello called the Floating Catfish Shack — with Fats Waller singing “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” while the gals dance with Hushpuppy and the other washed-up foundlings. But that said, as forceful as its invented mythology is, “Beasts” mainly feels like something new.
Running just over 90 minutes, the movie has its repetitions and longueurs. There’s a bit too much funkball philosophizing for my taste and, despite the fact that “Beasts” seems very much a collective project, it’s hard to shake the feeling that, no matter how much time the filmmakers spent in the Seventh Ward, they may not be entirely entitled to this material. Maybe that’s unfair — the Rolling Stones did do a great cover of Alvin Robinson’s la-bas beat classic “Down Home Girl” — and it’s certainly unfair that the movie is nearly overshadowed by its own virtuosity.
There were times, particularly towards the end, I found myself less watching the action than wondering just how did they make this? (The shooting ratio must have been astronomical.) Still, they did make it happen, and the movie’s mad gusto is truly infectious.