Hushpuppy is a 6-year-old who lives with her daddy in “the Bathtub.” Surrounded by animals, some of which will become dinner, the little girl loves the Delta swamps, seemingly ignorant of the grinding poverty of her hardscrabble, but happy life.
But a storm is coming -- literally. It and her father’s failing health threaten to tear Hushpuppy’s world apart. But she’s fierce, strong, and, for a little kid, independent. So Hushpuppy’s not overwhelmed. But she still cries out for her long-missing mom, who dad tells her “swam away.”
That’s the gist of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” a gritty, mysterious, near-mystical film that returns to theaters after receiving four Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture.
It’s anchored by two of the best performances of 2012, both by untrained actors, most notably Quvenzhane Wallis, who, as Hushpuppy, delivers a captivating, committed and authentic performance that made her the youngest Best Actress nominee ever. Cast at age five, she was six during most of the filming, turned seven before it ended and is now just 9.
A natural in front of the camera, Wallis was allowed to change the words in the Oscar-nominated script written by director Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar so it sounded right to her, and she delivers them perfectly. Sometimes, she’s a little kid; other times, she’s wise beyond her years and absolutely fearless. Hushpuppy is one of those unforgettable characters, and Wallis couldn’t have played her better.
Dwight Henry, who plays her father, brings an intensity to Wink, whether he’s drinking with friends, trying to teach Hushpuppy to survive or giving her a smack after she starts a fire. But his health is failing. Henry vividly captures the agony and love of a man trying to protect his daughter while his life fades away.
The Bathtub is the Mississippi Delta outside the levees, a perilous isolated area. Its residents, a Cajun/Creole crew, party together and live hand-to-mouth, using, for example, an old pickup bed to create a boat. They’re almost outside of civilization and happy to be there.
It is that isolation that allows Zeitlin, a talented newcomer who received a Best Director nomination for his first feature, to create a community and environment for his unforgettable tale of an extraordinary child.