"Beasts of the Southern Wild" isn't a heartbreaker, it's a heartwrecker.
Once 6-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis insinuates her adorable self into your affections, you're toast. You're done for. The movie will have its way with you, and her plight will pretty much make a soggy hash of the sympathies of any parent in the audience.
What is seldom understood in America is exactly how many independent tiny-budget films are made in America in circumstances roughly analogous to those of director Benh Zeitlin's film. Most go nowhere -- cable TV at a godforsaken hour, if they're lucky.
But sometimes at a film festival, people will see them and emerge from the theater affected, even shaken, and ready to tell the world about what they just saw.
That, at the Sundance Film Festival, was the case with "Beasts of the Southern Wild," an unlikely film in any brief description but a bit of a powerhouse once the adorable little girl in the center of the film has staked her claim on your emotions.
Quvenzhane (pronounced Cu-VON-jon-ay) Wallis is, to understate considerably, not a professional actress. Which is why the most sophisticated filmgoers have never had the slightest trouble being so profoundly charmed and moved by her. When you spend an entire film wanting to walk into the screen and give its 6-year-old heroine a hug, you're at the film's mercy.
And that's what happens in "Beasts of the Southern Wild," despite what begins as a kind of clumsy peace where the starkest realism and a kind of magic realism are supposed to coexist comfortably.
Quvenzhane plays Hushpuppy, a feisty little thing who lives on her own in a godforsaken and pitilessly poor and mythical part of Louisiana called the Bathtub. Because of the location of the levees, it is at the mercy of the not-so-tender waters, which are always liable to flood.
To Hushpuppy, in her voice-over narration, it's "the prettiest place in the world." To the audience, it seems the very symbol of geographical suffering and abandonment.
She lives in one converted house trailer. Daddy (Dwight Henry) lives in another a few feet away. He drinks hard, staggers around and treats Hushpuppy as roughly as a father could possibly treat a child with such imploring and watchful eyes. What we eventually learn is that he is grievously ill and everything he is doing -- including letting her live alone and knock back moonshine with him -- is to toughen her up for the life to come.
In the magic realist framework of the tale, we also see the vast world that is connected to this tiny, suffering, impoverished patch of American geography and, in a poetic way, redeems it by its existence. We see glaciers melt and prehistoric creatures roam. They're called Aurochs, and they look like wild boars with very unconvincing horns.
Hushpuppy's narration is all-important. It is there we get Hushpuppy's voice, which is, to be sure, an unrealistic literary conceit, but not so much that we reject it. It makes her both lovable and, in her innocence, that much more vulnerable.
She tells us, at one point, that the people in the Bathtub have more holidays than the rest of the world, never suspecting that is because employment is virtually nonexistent. "Up in the dry well, they got none of what we got."
A local medicine woman called Miss Bathsheeba tells the local kids that "every animal is made of meat."
"Everything is part of the buffet of the universe."
But "every day the fabric of the universe is becoming unraveled. Y'all better learn how to survive now."
And that Hushpuppy does, through flood and her father's illness -- where, at one point, they find him, take him to a hospital and "plug him into the wall."
If "the whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right," as Hushpuppy says, she and her Daddy have to struggle horribly to get it all to fit -- flood, illness, a wife and mother who abandoned them.
By the time of the denouement, dry wells in the corners of one's eyes are virtually impossible.
It is, in fact, the childlike literary quality of Hushpuppy's narration that makes everything else seem to "fit together" in this cinematic universe. When we finally see a symbolic confrontation of Hushpuppy and the extraordinary prehistoric Aurochs, we're able to accept that this all-too-tragically real life and place is also the place of magic and myth so beloved by William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, etc.
Here is one film where a little child does, indeed, lead everyone.
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
STARRING: Quvenzhane Wallis, Dwight Henry
DIRECTOR: Benh Zeitlin
RUNNING TIME: 91 minutes
RATING: PG-13 for intense weather and dramatic situations.
THE LOWDOWN: The ailing and impoverished father of an adorable 6-year-old tries to toughen her up for life without him.