The worst movies seem to last an eternity, but the best enfold and transform us in their universe of intense joys and sorrows.

From its opening moments, when a pretty, dirt poor little girl named Hushpuppy introduces herself and her world, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is like that. It plants the viewer firmly in a place of strange and squalid beauty, a watery shantytown in the delta swamplands of southern Louisiana. Such is one’s immersion in this setting that when the title credit finally appears, some 10 or 12 minutes into the film, the intrusion comes like lightning out of a clear sky, a shock that it is art and not life itself unspooling in front of us.

Hushpuppy’s poetic and hypnotic account of life in “the Bathtub,” as their little community of 50 or 100 souls is called, provides the movie’s narrative frame. Played with astonishing naturalness and power by newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis, who was just 5 when the movie was made, she is an entrancing, intrepid and domineering force. She is content with life there, which is filled with simple and self-evident truths. Looking across the bayou at the oil refineries standing like giant sentries on the horizon, she says, “Ain’t that ugly over there? We’ve got the prettiest place on earth. Bathtub’s got more holidays than the whole rest of the world.” For her, the rest of the world is where “they have babies stuck in carriages.”

Hushpuppy and her friends may be stuck in mud and squalor, far from “civilization,” but they are free to roam and run with the goats, chickens and dogs they live among. Her father, Wink (played by another newcomer, Dwight Henry), sees things in a darker light. His job, he tells her, is to set her straight on survival and independence. “Some day,” he says, “when I’m gone, you gonna be the last man in the Bathtub. You gotta learn to feed yourself.”

Her schoolteacher also counsels self-reliance. She hikes her skirt up in front
of the wide-eyed children to reveal a tattoo of a cave painting of ancient hunters fending off wild animals with spears. The animals, she explains, are aurochs, “fierce creatures” like huge boars. Against such adversaries, she warns, “You all better learn to survive.”

The great absence in Hushpuppy’s life is not civilization, but something more central: her mother. There was magic when her parents met. “She’d walk into a room and all the water would start to boil,” her father tells her. Hushpuppy accepts at face value his account of why she left, explaining, “She saw me, and she thought her heart was gonna blow up. That’s why she swam away.” Like Gatsby’s poster of the all-seeing eye, a blinking light on the horizon seems to Hushpuppy like the ghost of her mother, to which she turns for succor.

From these elements Hushpuppy derives a worldview with herself at the center. “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece, the universe will get busted.”

The first rip in this fabric is Wink’s sudden absence. Hushpuppy, who uses a blowtorch to light the kitchen stove, retaliates by setting fire to their shack. His return and their reconciliation are short-lived, a prelude to Hurricane Katrina. Wink, who is fiercely loving but decidedly erratic in his judgment, decides they will stay put. Even Hushpuppy is doubtful. When she asks him how they will survive the storm, he opens an umbrella. The storm itself is rendered only briefly, though with vivid and terrifying intensity. Afterward the Bathtub is a flooded shambles, the survivors forced to regroup in a makeshift boat, like Noah’s ark, floating above their known world.

When her father becomes sick and the group is forcibly moved to a relocation center called “Open Arms,” they yearn to escape. To Hushpuppy, patients are treated like animals. “When they get sick,” she says, looking at the tubes and monitors, “they’re plugged into the walls.”

Some viewers have commented on the movie’s “fabulism,” its imagined universe straining and heaving, replete with calving icebergs and wild aurochs on the loose like the animals her teacher has warned her about. But these are brief episodes, flights of a little girl’s fantasy and a reasonable survival mechanism.

In the end, viewers may ponder what life she will inherit in the face of her epic struggles and setbacks. But Hushpuppy is defiant and determined: she knows she will prevail.

“In a million years,” she says, “when kids go to school, they gonna know once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub.” With her indomitable will and fierce drive to understand and survive her rough environment, Hushpuppy is right: people will remember.

Les is a longtime Evanstonian and RoundTable writer and editor. He won a Chicago Newspaper Guild best feature story award in 1975 for a story on elderly suicide and most recently four consecutive Northern...