Sink or Swim

'Beasts of the Southern Wild' an apocalyptic swamp fantasy

A gumption-crazed little girl survives what looks like post-industrial living in Beasts of the Southern Wild, and she’s so cute that she’s even named Hushpuppy.

Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives in a waterside squatters’ camp called “the Bathtub.” A hardnosed teacher in a makeshift classroom schools her in the facts of life. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, and “every animal is made of meat—your ass is made of meat.”

The teacher in this swamp town hitches up her clothes to display a $200 tattoo on her thigh depicting some kind of mythical whangdoodle. That’s all the proof Hushpuppy needs that ice-locked beasts of the Stone Age could rise again. She has reveries of glaciers melting, and foresees tusked, piglike monsters slowly advancing and treading on miniature buildings like Godzilla.

Hushpuppy tries to bond with her ailing dad, Wink (Dwight Henry), who has come back to the Bathtub just in time. The muddy waters are rising. The government orders the villagers to go to a shelter. That’s when a storm hits and inundates the town.

After some flooding, Wink and Hushpuppy go for a float using a boat made of the butt end of a pickup truck, with some plastic barrel pontoons and a motor. The sights they see aren’t pretty; a drowned, bloated steer, headfirst and twisted along the littered bank, stands in for the human dead who would be scattered after a disaster.

First-time feature director Benh Zeitlin takes a studiously precious approach to all of this lower-depths life. Too often, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a low-budget, marsh-staged version of Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are—relentlessly, self-consciously elemental. Wallis is an appealing young actress, but her character is a daughter of the swamp in the same simplistic sense that old movies featured sons of the soil.

‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ opens Friday, July 13, at the Rafael Film Center.