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Friday, July 13, 2012 - Page updated at 03:00 p.m.
'Beasts of the Southern Wild' like a beautiful, quirky dream
By Moira Macdonald
Seattle Times movie critic
Benh Zeitlin's "Beasts of the Southern Wild" stays with you long after you've watched it, like a vaguely troubling but beautiful dream. The whole thing feels dreamlike, from the vaguely shaky camerawork to the magic twilight of the Louisiana bayou, where a 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives with her father (Dwight Henry) in a community called The Bathtub.
"Up in the dry world, they got none of what we got," says Hushpuppy of her habitat, a closely knit circle of outsiders, living in ramshackle homes that sit on the edge of a levee, in constant danger of rising waters.
The Bathtub isn't an actual place, and "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is more of a fairy tale than a realistic drama, the sort of tale where a small child discovers she has the power to change her fate.
Hushpuppy's slipshod yet happy life is shaken by a storm that changes everything in The Bathtub: Waters rise, homes disappear and enormous beasts (they look like giant boars) roam the landscape, like a bayou version of "Where the Wild Things Are."
Hushpuppy's daddy, a volatile figure who's sometimes loving and sometimes disturbingly threatening, can't save her. She must confront the beasts herself, with her tiny jaw set and her piping voice unafraid.
Zeitlin's film, based on a play by Lucy Alibar, feels like an utterly unique creation: You've never seen a heroine like Hushpuppy (who in an argument taunts her father with "After you die, I'll go to your grave and eat birthday cake all by myself!") or a world quite like this one, where homes and boats seem built from whatever materials happened to be at hand, and little girls are fearless because they haven't been taught otherwise.
Water slips in around the corners, like an uninvited but not unexpected guest; and a thoroughly self-reliant child becomes matter-of-factly uprooted.
"When you're small, you gotta fix what you can," she says, in the film's frequent voice-over, and off she goes, to rescue her father — and, perhaps, to find her long-lost mother, a woman so pretty, Hushpuppy tells us, "she never even had to turn on the stove."
It's audacious to center a film on the performance of a third-grader. (Wallis' charming press-kit biography cites no previous acting experience, but notes she loves "stir-fry Alfredo Chicken.") But this child is completely at ease on camera — and without a trace of the self-consciousness that destroys so many child performances. Hushpuppy, who speaks as if she just might be a writer someday (the rescue center for those displaced by the flood, she says, "looked like a fish tank with no water"), wanders confidently through her story, chin held high, learning a little — as do we — along the way.
"This is my favorite thing: being lifted," she says at the end, as she's held in an adult's loving arms. "Beasts of the Southern Wild" lifts us, in its mysterious way, as Hushpuppy makes her fantastical journey. At its warm, quirky heart, it's the oldest of stories: a child in search of home.
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