Just as did director Guillermo del Toro in Pan’s Labyrinth, first-time feature director Benh Zeitlin requires a suspension of disbelief to become part of a world seen and understood through a young girl’s eyes.
Just as the creative force of Ofelia’s imagination in that 2006 film fought back against Franco’s fascism, this one, embodied in 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), stands up to the racism and sacrifice of the poor for the sake of those with higher tax bases and voter identification cards.
The basic story is simple. Hushpuppy lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in the Bathtub, an area outside New Orleans that city officials allow to flood to save higher-income areas. They reside among a group of off-the-gridders who live a hardscrabble life rooted in tradition, cigarettes and alcohol. Feasts in the form of crawfish parties and famine in the eating of pet food and canned gravy both get screen time. Children are loved; children are put in harm’s way.
The higher-level story is more complex. As the unnamed, Katrina-like hurricane of the film approaches, fierce prehistoric creatures called aurochs escape from the melting polar ice caps and begin slouching toward the Bathtub.
What amazes is watching Zeitlin pull off the trick of keeping Beasts’ realism simultaneously magical and gritty. Fierce hooves thud and fearsome thunder cracks as a young boy runs through the camp ringing a handbell and warning, “The storm’s coming!” He’s the Bathtub’s Paul Revere.
In the moving story of a daughter and her father, Zeitlin weaves together infuriating themes of ecological disaster and social discrimination that ring as true as the bell.
Revolution may be at hand, indeed. Scheduled to open Friday, the film is not perfect: too obvious at times and too mystical at others. While its magic may be rough, however, it is still magic. Wallis is a wonder — no other word will do — as Hushpuppy. She may well become the youngest ever nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. Her voice over narration goes far beyond what the standard issue 6-year-old might plausibly say, but Wallis makes every word believable, and she is almost always center-screen.
Hushpuppy knows she is “a little piece of a big, big universe,” but one of her most poignant lines makes clear that, still, attention must be paid: “In a million years, when kids go to school, they’re going to know once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub.”
She’s poor and small, but that shouldn’t render her existence meaningless. That’s not too much to ask for anyone.