There are so many wonderful details in "Beasts of the Southern Wild," a tough-to-categorize film that finds bottomless joy in the unlikely subject of Hurricane Katrina, that it's hard to know where to begin. One of my favorites is when its heroine, a dirt-poor 6-year-old named Hushpuppy, sets her house on fire while cooking a meal of cat food. It's harrowing and hilarious and beautiful all at once, like nearly everything in this remarkable movie.
Based on a play by Florida writer Lucy Alibar, who co-wrote with New Orleans director Benh Zeitlin (who also composed the music with Dan Romer), "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is a blend of fact and fiction that's somehow more powerful than either. The setting is The Bathtub, a mythical Southern neighborhood whose proud residents refuse to evacuate during a storm that's never officially named. But the movie was filmed in Louisiana and stars two first-time actors from the state: Quvenzhané Wallis, a third-grader, plays Hushpuppy, and Dwight Henry, a New Orleans baker, plays her father, Wink.
"Beasts" presents images of unfathomable poverty, but the film isn't wringing its hands or passing judgment. The Bathtub also brims with life and fun (much of it fueled by moonshine). Wink is a nasty-tempered alcoholic, to be sure, but he also has excellent parenting skills. As Hushpuppy retreats into a fantasy world (the animals in the title seem very much alive), Wink teaches her how to eat without utensils, scream at people and survive without love -- probably the most valuable life lessons she'll learn.
Wallis and Henry are astonishing together, creating a parent-child bond that runs deeper than hugs or kisses. It turns out that some of the strongest magic in "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is the kind that can't be seen.
PLOT When her impoverished Southern neighborhood is flooded by a hurricane, a 6-year-old girl struggles for survival. RATING PG-13 (disturbing images, language and brief sensuality)
CAST Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry
PLAYING AT Malverne Cinema 4, Manhasset Cinemas and Cinema Arts Centre, Huntington
BOTTOM LINE An ode to joy in the face of tragedy, this tough-to-categorize film is a rare treat: harrowing, hilarious and uplifting all at once.