If Oscar voters still bestowed a special juvenile award, Quvenzhane Wallis would be a surefire contender, if not winner, as Hushpuppy in "Beasts of the Southern Wild."
She is fierce and fantastic in Benh Zeitlin's story of a 6-year-old motherless girl whose world -- barely stitched together -- begins to unravel as her father's health deteriorates and Louisiana waters swallow the untamed bayou where they live.
Their fictitious home, "the Bathtub," has been physically and in every other way cut off from the rest of the world, and that's just fine with them. As Hushpuppy's father, Wink (Dwight Henry), suggests, "We got the prettiest place on Earth."
3.5 stars = Very good
- Starring: Quvenzhane Wallis, Dwight Henry.
- Rating: PG-13 for thematic material including child imperilment, some disturbing images, language and brief sensuality.
They live in a place of impromptu parades, makeshift meals and ample alcohol, the very opposite world of a land where holidays only come once a year or fish arrive in plastic wrappers or babies are stuck in carriages. The very act of trying to make herself a meal produces an actual fire and a firestorm between the girl and her dad, who reside in separate ramshackle trailers.
"I hope you die and after you die, I'll go to your grave and eat birthday cake all by myself," she says, with enough defiance for a classroom of children. She comes to believe that she "broke something" as the Bathtub floods, her father falls ill and her imagination goes into overdrive.
"Beasts" is based on the Lucy Alibar play "Juicy and Delicious" about a little boy losing his father at the end of the world, complete with prehistoric aurochs. It's powered by Mr. Henry and young Quvenzhane. Neither had acted before. The man who plays Wink was plucked from his bakery and his own five children, and the girl from elementary school and a field of 4,000 hopefuls.
Co-written and directed by Mr. Zeitlin, "Beasts" transports us to a world so real that it almost seems like a documentary or the story of a lost, untamed civilization with its own rules and natural order about to collapse.
With no name, or even actual, actors, on screen, there are no distractions. What you have, instead, are indelible images, a girl with an emotional range and depth of talent of someone two or three times her age and a celebratory, stubborn spirit of people determined to survive -- or make sure those left behind do.
As the girl says in her narration, "They gonna know that once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her Daddy in the Bathtub." She certainly did.
Opens today at the Manor Theater in Squirrel Hill.