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By Melynda Nuss

LOS ANGELES, 14 AUGUST 2012 — What would it be like to be an animal?  Simple, joyful, perfectly in touch with the rhythms of the earth. Yes, but also vulnerable and afraid, subject to predators, starvation, and natural disasters. Like all the best fairy tales, Beasts of the Southern Wild walks the line between magic and terror. Its heroine, six-year old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), lives at the end of the world, on a tiny island south of New Orleans called "the bathtub." There, outside the levees, she plays in a leafy bower on structures her father has built from discarded industrial materials. She cavorts with chickens and pigs and grubby cheerful babies; she romps in a shipping-container bar with a collection of toothless drunken adults. Her life is vivid, feverish, magical.

It is easy to see the trouble coming for Hushpuppy. Her mother is dead; her father is a heavy drinker who occasionally disappears. The wind blows; children run down the street with cowbells to announce the coming hurricane.  Melting glaciers release prehistoric beasts. It is a lot to handle, and Hushpuppy is a small creature in a big world. But Beasts is about the power of the small. Hushpuppy and her ragtag band of Bathtubbians hold their own against sterile interventions of the outside world and the ravages of flesh and time.  

Quvenzhane Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild
Photo still: Fox Searchlight Pictures

It is a film perfectly suited for a world that loves the small and local. Even the making of the film smacks of the authentic and fiercely independent. Director Benh Zeitlin, the son of two New York City folklorists, spent eight months exploring the islands off the southern Louisiana coast. He shot the movie on a shoestring budget with local nonprofessional actors and a collective of artists and filmmakers from across the country. As a result, the film carries with it not only the flavor of the area’s native rituals, but also a sense of its isolation and defiance.  

Given the film’s making, it is only natural to expect some imperfections. My companion complained about the film’s shaky camerawork — no doubt meant to show the precariousness of the child’s vision. Half as much would have gotten the point across without making us run for the dramamine. I thought the aurochs would have been better left to the imagination; for me, their glossy prehistoric fur with its exaggerated drops of moisture didn’t fit in with the lush danger of the southern coast.  Every viewer will have to decide whether these natural imperfections are part of the beauty of the fabric. 

Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry in Beasts of the Southern Wild
Photo still: Fox Searchlight Pictures

One thing that there is no doubt about, however, is six-year old Quvenzhané Wallis. With a head of Don King hair and the energy of a supercharged subatomic particle, this extraordinary young actress carries the film. She is joyful, curious, pensive, fierce, angry, frightened and protective. A warrior princess with the vulnerability of a child, equally at home staring down monsters and curled in her daddy’s arms. Already Wallis has been mentioned as a candidate for Best Actress. If she wins, she will be the youngest person to receive an academy award. She deserves it.

Melynda Nuss is a writer and an Associate Professor of Romantic Literature and Drama at the University of Texas - Pan American.  A regular contributor to Culturekiosque, she last reviewed the books, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning to of Everything by David Bellos, and Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners by Michael Erard.

Headline image: Quvenzhane Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild
Photo still: Fox Searchlight Pictures

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