The “Bathtub” is a geographic area physically separated from the ‘mainland’ of Louisiana by a levee. But the real separation is the type of lives the residents of the Bathtub actually live. This is the setting for Beasts of the Southern Wild, a film that has mythical creatures, tragedy, triumph and wonder. The residents don’t live luxuriously, but they manage to live large in spite of their humble abodes and lifestyles.
“Hushpuppy” (Wallis) is a six-year-old child who lives with her father “Wink” (Henry) in separate trailers some distance away from the center of the Bathtub. She goes to school where her teacher, “Miss Bathsheba” (Montana), teaches the students about the ‘Aurochs’, wild creatures that live trapped beneath the polar icecaps. When the ice caps melt, she says, the Aurochs will escape. Miss Bathsheba is teaching her charges how to survive that event.
A seminal event in Hushpuppy’s life comes when she is ordered to “Beast It”, open a crab up for eating with her hands instead of using any utensils. This is a challenge that Hushpuppy meets head-on.
There is a major storm coming to the Bathtub and many of the residents flee. When you live outside the levees, storms mean flooding in a major way. But Wink won’t leave and he and Hushpuppy find the area ravaged by the storm and the storm’s surge of saltwater. The plant life and much of the fish that provides their sustenance begin to die from the effects of the salt. Wink’s solution is to try to blow up the levee which will prevent flooding.
Ultimately, Wink and Hushpuppy wind up in a shelter where Wink’s illness worsens. When the backs of the people running the shelter are turned, all of the Bathtub’s residents that are there leave and go home. The doctor at the shelter made it clear what would happen to Wink if he did not get treated, but nothing would keep him from going back to the Bathtub. He tells Hushpuppy to “be strong”.
This is an outstanding first feature film by Zeitlin and it doesn’t matter at all that we never find out if the Aurochs are real or only exist in the mind of Hushpuppy through what her teacher has told her. Wallis was only five when she was cast and seven when the film was first shown, but she performs with a maturity and energy rarely (if ever) seen from such a young child actor. All of the performances in the film are first-rate and while it is only 93 minutes, it seems to both flash by in an instant and yet resonate in your mind long after the final credits have scrolled.