Watching Beasts of the Southern Wild is like stepping into a dream. Full of images that weave, fade, and flicker among each other, it's visually one of the most beautiful of the year, holding you in the palm of its tiny child-sized hand, floating through the chaos. Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) is a young girl in a part of Louisiana called the Bathtub, full of the kind of people and living conditions that most citizens would rather ignore, and the first part to wash away when the big storm comes. But Hushpuppy is so sweet, innocent, and wise, she makes everything around her seem the same way. Her depth casts a spell on both her environment and the audience. Sadly, she is mostly alone in her world, since her father Wink (Dwight Henry) isn't equipped to take care of her past cooking a chicken for her to eat once a day.
There's not much of a story in a normal conflict-resolution kind of way, but for what it lacks in plot points it makes up for in visual wonder. It teeters on the brink of needing more of a propelled storyline, because all that really "happens" is that Hushpuppy fends for herself, talking to a basketball jersey her mother left behind and lighting the stove with a blowtorch. She goes to school, which isn't so much about book knowledge as it is homespun wisdom and advice about survival. Katrina washes away their home, which the remaining citizens of the Bathtub "correct," and then the people who would rather forget the Bathtub existed try to give help to the disenfranchised group with terrible results. But distilling it to those points seems to cheapen a movie that aspires to something more, even if it doesn't entirely get there.
This is a movie of contrasts, where you are led by Wallis, who has such a commanding presence at such a young age I have a hard time believing she is a human child. As she ambles through the rusty, twisted metal surrounding her home, there wasn't much of a sense of danger watching as she holds a baby chick to her ear to hear its heartbeat while ancient gigantic oxen storm the land, plodding towards something only Hushpuppy can understand. My uptight adult concern was constantly challenged by her innocence, and the imagery of the foreboding, depressing surroundings was always lessened by the beautiful camerawork that recorded it. Somehow the conditions that her family and their friends were living in, although some would consider squalor, seemed to make sense and not be so bad among the tight-knit group of people that are proud to be there.
As Wink succumbs to illness, Hushpuppy becomes the caretaker. Of course he fights her tooth and nail, because he feels like he has to, but she's probably a better parent than he is anyway. He is determined to stay in the Bathtub, and his tough exterior barely conceals how terrified he is to leave her. I never doubted for a second that these two were related (even though they're not), and the stark realism set against Hushpuppy's magical fantasy never disappointed me. I'm not sure what the point of the movie was because of the meandering plot, but I don't think that was the point anyway. Go and be amazed by a visually ambitious film that harkens back to a childhood you only partially had.