Beasts of the Southern Wild: Lovely new film

As we enjoy the summer movie season — and the big action films that fill theaters — the Reel Dad looks for other nutritional movie choices. This week’s pick is a new drama, Beasts of the Southern Wild.

A child naturally brings an instinct for survival to any challenge the world may deliver. A child’s ability to balance daring and denial can deliver the courage to stand up to anything or anyone. And the lessons a child learns from such experiences can fuel a lifetime of freedom.

The lovely new film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, explores how a child’s resilience can be tested by uncontrollable events. Using life on a Southern delta as a location, and events surrounding a major storm as a catalyst, the movie examines how one child learns to save herself, protect her father, and nurture people she cares for. Through her adventures, and the relationships she holds dear, we learn how values are formed from the inside; from her challenges, and the bravery she shows, we experience how strong values persevere.

Hushpuppy is a young girl who knows how to maneuver around her immediate world. She is comfortable in her room, surrounded by her memories, close to her father, and connected to others she cares for. In dwellings that lack most everything we consider essential, from running water to electricity, these people disappear from mainstream society. The “bathtub” — as they call their part of the world — is, simply, home.

When a major storm approaches, in a sequence reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Hushpuppy’s instinct for survival is put to the ultimate test. How will this girl, aged well beyond her years, react when public officials demand evacuation? How will she protect her ill father who is her only family and caregiver? How will she take command of her destiny? And what can we learn from her bravery?

Without relying on a traditional narrative to tell its story, Beasts is not as much about what it is than what it suggests. This is not a conventional film that uses standard dialogue to develop accessible characters. Instead, writer and director Ben Zeitlin uses compelling visuals to establish a sense of place and fragments of conversation to illustrate relationships. While the film is clearly rooted in the South, it could be told in any place where people are forgotten by the rest of society. And Hushpuppy’s bravery is a demonstration, to any child, of the power of belief in self, home and future.

As six-year-old Hushpuppy, child actor Quvenshane Wallis simply astonishes. Rarely do we see such young performers so naturally capture a character’s essence. But Wallis never lets us see that she is acting; she simply lives within the little girl’s soul. Her screen presence is so magnetic that she instantly draws us into world. And, when the film reaches an abstract climax, Wallis’ authenticity grounds us in believing that anything can happen in this little girl’s world.

Beasts is a film for families to share and discuss. While the specifics of Hushpuppy’s world may seem many miles away, the lessons of her ordeal are immediate and real. And they give us parents a lot to talk about with our kids.

Film Nutritional Value

Beasts of the Southern Wild

* Content: High. This examination of a child’s courage is a meaningful journey for everyone.

* Entertainment: High. Even without a conventional narrative, the film helps us see into the soul of a special child and her immediate world.

* Message: High. While the film makes us think, it also helps us see what difference real bravery can make.

* Relevance: High. Any opportunity to get to know an unfamiliar part of the world, and look into a special person’s mind and heart, is relevant.

* Opportunity for Dialogue: High. You and your older children will have a lot to talk about as you remember your visit to Hushpuppy’s world.

(Beasts of the Southern Wild is rated PG-13 for thematic material including child imperilment, some disturbing images, language and brief sensuality. The film runs 91 minutes.)

4-1/2 Popcorn Buckets