At its best, the alluringly rough-hewn and warm-hearted film Beasts of the Southern Wild takes its place in the slim ranks of strong films rooted in the idea of exploring an enclave in another America, one far outside the usual urban/suburban landscape where Hollywood tends to dwell. Just as the stellar Winter’s Bone dug into its backwoods, meth-addled milieu, Beasts bravely delves into a remote corner of the vast map that is America, into a niche in the Louisiana Delta dubbed “the Bathtub.”
In the story, these isolated, and proudly individualistic citizens of their own domain off the “mainland” are further isolated when Katrina hits. At the center — and epicenter — of this story is a resilient young girl, played with hypnotic pluck and verve by Quvenzhané Wallis, making her way with her sickly, tough-loving father (Dwight Henry). In her voiceover narrative bits, she dispenses philosophical ideas, such as a thematic kernel of the film, “the whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right.” She also makes earthier realizations, as when, post-flood, those left behind in the Bathtub get down to the business of survival off the grid rather than “sitting around crying, like a bunch of pussies.”
One of the distracting aspects of the film is its far too slick musical score, partly written by the director. Whereas Winter’s Bone wisely listened up to music from the area and drew on those indigenous sounds to help paint a picture, the music here is far too hip and urbane for the context, which serves to diminish the gutsier authenticity of other aspects of the film and reminds us that this is a movie made by urbanites from outside of the area, looking in.
That quibble aside, Beasts is one of the more fresh and admirable pieces of cinema this year, with qualities veering between naturalistic and poetic filmmaking, with some sentimental sweetener in the brew. Its tale is an odyssey, in more than one way, and a window on the American grain, in a corner normally lost to obscurity, at least in terms of what normally passes for American life in the multiplex.