Starring Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry
Since Beasts of the Southern Wild debuted at the festival circuit a few months back, there has been a swell of critical acclaim surrounding it. From all that I had heard, Benh Zeitlin’s first full-length film was going to be a completely unique experience, centered with a mesmerizing performance by a 6-year-old girl. It is needless to say that I couldn’t wait for Beasts of the Southern Wild to get a wider release and find its way to Milwaukee. Apparently many others were just as anxious to see what all this critical chatter was about as well; it had the biggest opening weekend of the year at the little theater where I viewed it, according to its manager. Shortly into the film, I was completely fascinated by the life portrayed in this forgotten but vibrant region of Louisiana’s lowlands, the Bathtub. Zeitlin’s distinctive artistic flair and the intense lead performances (by unseasoned actors) made it a film far more memorable than your standard indie darling.
Told mostly through Hushpuppy’s narration, Beasts of the Southern Wild tells the story of a little girl and her troubled father as they try to survive in a world made inhospitable by a Hurricane Katrina-like natural disaster. But before the survival tale comes to play, Zeitlin spends a considerable amount of time getting into the psyche of the young Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and showing us the world she must grow up in.
Hushpuppy and all her neighbors endure rough conditions to survive in the Bathtub even before the storm hits. People in the Bathtub live among garbage in their one-room shacks, eat the animals they catch (or sometimes old cans of cat food), and quickly become hardened by their circumstances. This world, on the wrong side of the levees, is so geographically close to a civilization we are more accustomed to (with oil rigs off in the distance), but culturally, the Bathtub might as well be another planet. Which is exactly how its inhabitants like it. Beasts of the Southern Wild is beautiful when the community comes together for an early celebration, inspiring when the people unite to move on after the flood, and terrifying when the outside world tries to interfere. It seems that life in the Bathtub requires a special sort of person, but once you are strong enough to survive, the sense of togetherness that comes along is appealing.
I loved watching this world unfold, get torn down and then rebuilt before my eyes.
The heart of the film lies in the performances by Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry, as her father, Wink (especially Wallis). This 6 year-old is the focus of nearly every scene and carries the film admirably. Having a mother who ran away from the Bathtub (and her family) and a father who, when he’s not missing, yells more than loves has forced Hushpuppy to grow up faster than a little girl ought to. Wallis strikes an amazing balance to show that Hushpuppy is stronger and fiercer than most girls her age, but still views this harsh reality with a childlike innocence. She wants her parents’ love more than anything and uses her imagination to explain the ways of the world. Nothing changes the fact that she is a just small child, as much as Wink wants Hushpuppy to grow up quickly, for fear that he may not always be there to protect her. By approaching the story from Hushpuppy’s point of view, we see how disastrous situations are interpreted through the lens of a child’s imagination. This perspective adds a fantastical element to the drama of Beasts of the Southern Wild that enriches the overall experience.
The film integrates fantastical elements from Hushpuppy’s imagination in the reality in the Bathtub throughout the film. The most obvious example, and one that isn’t always 100 percent effective, is the presence of the “aurochs,” a prehistoric predator. In Hushpuppy’s mind, the danger of global warming is that a terrible monster, the aurochs, will be released from the ice to hunt down the people of the Bathtub. As Hushpuppy faces more and more hardships, the metaphorical beasts charge their way closer and closer to the Bathtub. While I love the idea of a child interpreting a global issue like climate change in such a visceral manner, Zeitlin’s execution may lose some viewers. I preferred when the film’s fantastical elements were less direct, when intuited through her words/actions and the almost surreal camerawork. However, this is a minor issue.
Acting as co-writer of the screenplay and writer of the score, Benh Zeitlin emerges as a great new talent in his directorial debut. The character of Hushpuppy and the world of the Bathtub are hard to shake after watching Beasts of the Southern Wild and the bombastic score (that works well within the film) is memorable. His film looks and feels unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Such a jarringly unique experience may not be for everyone, but I was on board with Zeitlin and Beasts of the Southern Wild.
But Zeitlin’s greatest success might be the discovery of Quvenzhané Wallis. At only 6, Wallis has an intense presence on screen when necessary, but also can show sweet side or a sad side. This isn’t a great performance for a child, but a great performance for an actor. It is amazing to think that she could accomplish something so good at such a young age. As much as Benh Zeitlin pounds his directorial touch home, Wallis’ Hushpuppy will be the greatest part of Beasts of the Southern Wild.
As Beasts of the Southern Wild’s credits rolled, I was filled with a sense of joy over whatever was this work of art I just witnessed. I was given a great cinematic character in Hushpuppy and a stylized feast for the eyes. There is sadness in the story no doubt, but I left the theater optimistic over whatever Hushpuppy’s next steps may be regardless. While it probably won’t be until its blu-ray release (in time for Oscar season, I’m sure), I cannot wait until I get another chance to revisit it. There was a good deal of hype surrounding this film when I entered the theater, and Beasts of the Southern Wild affirmed that hype in the end.
Mark it 8.