Six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) resides with her charismatic and often crazy father Wink (Dwight Henry) in a rural backwoods patch of land in Louisiana called "the Bathtub"; this low land is separated from the rest of the Louisiana bayou by a huge levee. They live in outrageous poverty: each has a shack on stilts filled with memorabilia and junk accumulated over the years. Wink, an ardent believer in his right to live the way he wants, is convinced that they reside in "the prettiest place on Earth." When push comes to shove, there's no way that anybody's ever going to force him to relocate.
Others who fish the local waters are similar to Wink in their love of place and their militant animosity against those who interfere with their way of life. The races are mixed in the Bathtub and they seem to get along well. And as Hushpuppy tells us, the people of the Bathtub have more holidays than the whole rest of the world. These folks relish drinking and dancing and setting off fireworks. Even in their garish poverty, they know how to hoot and holler and have a good time.
Hushpuppy and her father live close to the land and close to the animals. She loves her encounters with crabs, lobsters, and catfish that can be grabbed by hand from the river. She also enjoys listening for the heartbeat in wild things. One of the highpoints in her day is when they feed their animals and sit down to partake of food surrounded by slobbering sounds.
At school, the no-nonsense teacher uses a tattoo on her thigh to teach the class about aurochs, gigantic wild boars that once roamed and terrorized the region. She warns them that they are all just meat to the aurochs. Hushpuppy imagines the beasts encased in the glaciers as her teacher warns them of what will happen with climate change: "Any day now, the fabric of the universe is coming unraveled . . . Y'all better learn to survive."
When the hurricane winds and the rains hit the Bathtub, causing severe flooding, Hushpuppy and her dad disobey the orders to evacuate. In one of her voiceovers, Hushpuppy comments: "Daddy says brave men don’t run from their place." They tough it out in the storm and the little girl proves her courage to the rest of the community. After the floods comes even more devastation as the plants and animals die from the influx of salt water.
Eventually, facing a variety of problems, Wink, Hushpuppy, and other survivors of the flooding are taken to shelters. The doctors there discover that Wink has a terminal illness and doesn't have long to live. This makes him all the more determined to toughen up Hushpuppy, even if it means being rough on her. But the tenacious little girl takes it all in and bounces back. She does what she can to comfort her father: "When you're small, you gotta fix what you can." But it may be too late to fix her father or her community.
Hushpuppy misses her mother who "swam away" years ago but has visited in dreams. She still talks to her during bad times. Once when she asks Wink what she was like, he responds: "Your mother was so pretty that when she walked into a room all the water started to boil." With several other motherless children, Hushpuppy makes a pilgrimage to a nearby island and a fancy whorehouse. There she connects emotionally with a beautiful woman who could have been her mother.
In one of the critical encounters in Hushpuppy's valiant evolution into a victorious personality, she must confront in her mind's eye the beasts of the southern wild — the prehistoric aurochs. She calls them the "strong animals" and observes that weak hearts make them hungry. So when they come, she faces them with her strong heart and befriends them. This bold and tender action proves her fearlessness in the face of whatever shows up in her life.
Brenh Zeitlin directs this Academy-Award caliber film based on the stage play "Juicy and Delicious" by Lucy Alibar. He makes the most of the painterly camerawork of Ben Richardson, creating an alternate world in the Bathtub to justify the characters' fierce attachment to it. The extraordinary musical score by Dan Romer and the director adds further atmosphere to the story.
Best of all, Zeitlin has drawn out two extraordinary performances from first-time actors. Dwight Henry, a baker from the Third Ward of New Orleans, brings a credibility to Wink that was created from his having endured the hardships of Katrina. And Quvenzhane Wallis, only five when she was cast, is simply astonishing as Hushpuppy. She creates a portrait of the penultimate survivor whose courage, inner strength, and wisdom make her one of the most memorable, lyrical, and authentic screen characters of this or any other year.
Hushpuppy is a true mystic with her remarkable awareness of the world around her and her ability to embrace it with spacious fearlessness. She sees the way things are: "The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right." She connects with what created her: "When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me flying around in invisible pieces." When things get busted, she takes up the challenge of tikkun olam, repairing the world. And after all that she goes through, she can still testify: "I see that I'm a little piece of a big universe, and that makes things right."
Special features on the DVD include the making of Beasts of the Southern Wild.