This vivid and visceral film brings out the theme of racial diversity in an odd but comfortable mix of a natural yet fantastical world of a child's real-life flavored with her fantasies. As the story unfolds, these unfamiliar places and circumstances begin to take on a familiar feel as we sink deeper and deeper into the clarity of this muddy story of place, parenting and loss. In this film race, gender and age simply exist on the continuum of life's events but do not dominate outcomes.
Quvenzhane Wallis' stunning performance as Hushpuppy ranks high on the list of young girls making their own sense of the world, girls like Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes) in Niki Caro's Whale Rider (2002) or the Craig sisters (Everlyn Sampi and Tianna Sansbury) in Rabbit Proof Fence (2002). Hushpuppy's world is relatively simple until her father becomes ill. For her, there is the "dry world" out there and the familiar "wet world" and its occupants in the bath tub where she lives. With remarkable clarity, the film manages to closely examine water as both giver and taker of life. This is a post-Katrina narrative that holds dear and celebrates the idea of home as a geographical place and beseeches us to understand the fight to stay where one belongs no matter what the threat.
Having lost her mother some time before we meet her, Hushpuppy is now forced, it seems, to live in her own house while her father occupies his. She is innocent and fierce, thoughtful with a temper, and simultaneously resists her independent yet patriarchal existence while she holds tight to its familiarity for comfort. In some ways her relationship to her father is much like the father-daughter relationship in Hanna (2011), where the bulk of Hanna's life as we see it is her seemingly brutal training to survive what will come. In Beasts, emotionally wrenching at times, we watch as Hushpuppy's father Wink (Dwight Henry) prepares her for the difficult life ahead, a life without him. At one of the visually and emotionally quieter moments in the film, Hushpuppy says that she can count the times she has been held by someone on two fingers and Zeitling was smart enough to leave us the time and space to absorb the moment.
A stunningly visualized poetic story, a touching coming-of-age tale, a fantastic and surreal narrative that makes good use of the experimental form, with thoroughly engaging (non-actors) acting. I was simply blown away by it all. Benh Zeitlin put his heart into this film and I felt it. My thanks to the people who helped him make it. My thanks to all of those who acknowledged its existence so that I could see it.