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Review: “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

WANT TO KNOW what the future looks like, according to Beasts of the Southern Wild, the remarkable debut feature from Benh Zeitlin? It looks like this: A man wears a helmet light, holds a bottle of liquor and blasts impotently at a raging storm with a shotgun. The man is named Wink (the impressive first-time actor Dwight Henry), and he is watching his home disappear due to an unholy combination of climate change, industrial rot and the tug of officialdom.

Wink’s home is a weird little island in Louisiana called the Bathtub. It’s an isolated place, where the inhabitants shack up in the stuff of junkyards. (Production designer Alex DiGerlando deserves an Oscar nod.) Cut off from the rest of the state by a flood wall, the Bathtub is populated by a defiant people bound together by tradition and culture.

They refuse to play by civilization’s rules. “We ain’t going nowhere,” says Wink’s 6-year-old daughter, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), the moral center of the film and its narrator. You could write a term paper exploring the nuances of Wallis’ performance — all the dark, psychic places and deep spaces she journeys. Suffice it to say that Zeitlin pulls from this little girl a profound awareness most adults can’t fathom, let alone find.

Visually, Zeitlin and his cinematographer Ben Richardson stay close on their characters, especially Hushpupy. We see the rapidly disappearing Bathtub — an apocalypse in miniature — through their eyes. The one misfire here: Zeiltin and co-writer Lucy Alibar insert a heavy-handed symbol called aurochs, an extinct buffalo-like creature unleashed by the world’s melting glaciers.

Still, the aurochs add to the hallucinatory quality of Beasts of the Southern Wild. Because who knows what the future will look like? It could be Wink shooting at the disobedient heavens. Or it could be the new beginning promised by very old things come back from the grave. KEVIN CAPP