Beasts of the Southern Wild is the debut feature film of writer/director Benh Zeitlin. Starring local talent from the south Louisiana basin, the story recounts how one community deals with the aftermath of a catastrophic flood. The film won the Camera d'Or (best first film) at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival as well as the Grand Jury Prize for Drama at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) and her father Wink (Dwight Henry) live in an area called "The Bathtub," a low-lying island region south of the New Orleans levees. The two have a complicated relationship, each living in their own ramshackle home sourced from found parts. In fact, the entire region gives the impression of being cobbled together from things discarded and overlooked, rough-hewn and lying in the shadow of another world.
Hushpuppy spends her days exploring her surroundings, playing with the animals on their land and attending class with the other children. Wink loves his daughter, but has a difficult time showing it, and is unfortunately prone to violent parenting. When he's not off doing his own thing, he relates to her by trying to toughen her up. Most of the residents of The Bathtub seem to view life as hard, and the sooner you become hard with it, the easier things will be for you. This parenting style doesn't change when we discover that Wink is terminally ill, and in fact he almost seems to push Hushpuppy away from him in order to speed up her independence.
It is in this setting that the storms come. A cataclysmic flood ravages the region, and the few who remain — whether too proud or stubborn to leave — are left to piece back together what remains of their home.
Hushpuppy sees all of this change and calamity around her and can't help but think of the story her teacher told her about the aurochs, mythical beasts who used to roam the land. She sees herself as somehow involved in the calamitous events happening around her, but also begins to connect to a primal strength she imagines is rushing into her world.
The story is easier to recount than it is to convey. Depicting this group as New Orleans flood victims would be too easy and wouldn't even begin to paint them accurately. Hushpuppy narrates the story and is able to philosophize its meaning beyond her years.