If you’re allergic to arthouse cinema, then you will probably find Beasts of the Southern Wild a bit too obscure and meandering for your tastes. However, if you’re a more open-minded cinemagoer, this first-time feature from writer-director Benh Zeitlin (based on a one-act play by Lucy Alibar) is a striking mix of poignant drama, humour and dream imagery. It’s a highly original piece of cinema – and film festival darling that could potentially score awards love come early 2013.
Beasts of the Southern Wild plunges the viewer into a world and community we’ve rarely seen onscreen before, except in caricature form. Set in the Bathtub, a ramshackle informal fishing settlement on the outside of Louisiana’s levees, the film focuses on a group of eccentrics. Eschewing conventional society, the inhabitants of Bathtub live off the grid for various reasons, mostly a mix of insanity, irresponsibility, alcoholism and fierce independence. It’s a harsh life but the Bathtub’s denizens are a united community, get by and are evidently content. This is also the only world that 6-year old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) knows.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is told from the perspective of Hushpuppy, and it’s her imagination and tendency to naively integrate into her worldview anything she’s told, that sends the film into Magical Realism turf – where the weirdest and most wonderful things are accepted at face value. For example, Hushpuppy equates the illness of her father, Wink (Dwight Henry) and, more importantly, her defiance of him, with the unbalancing of the universe. Because of Hushpuppy’s actions there’s a devastating hurricane, and a glacier collapse that frees a herd of monstrous aurochs intent on devouring the small and weak. Naturally, they lumber Hushpuppy’s way.
It all sounds a bit trippy, and it is, but filtered through the mind of a young child, events have a kind of fairy tale logic to them. It also doesn’t hurt that Beasts of the Southern Wild is visually very strong, with multiple breathtaking moments.
Of course, prettiness alone does not a good movie make, and ultimately the impact of the film hinges on its dysfunctional father-daughter relationship, and the performances that make it credible. Wallis, who was 5 years old at the time of shooting, is phenomenal – not to mention completely Oscar-worthy – as a feisty little wildcat in tune with the rhythms of Nature, but still craving her AWOL mother. Hushpuppy has a complicated relationship with her father, but there’s no denying that Wink’s tough love and frequent negligence has instilled a sense of resourcefulness, resilience and self-reliance in his daughter if she is to survive without him.
The scenes between Wink and Hushpuppy are emotionally electric, and the fact that the 2 actors, like the rest of the cast, are non-professionals, only adds to the impressiveness.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is not without the quirks we’ve come to expect of indie films. Given its unfocused nature, you wonder sometimes where the film is going, and the final quarter, with Hushpuppy and her friends swimming out into the bay to search for Hushpuppy’s mother, feels even more surreal than anything that preceded it. I kept expecting reality to intrude with devastating results, but it never does.
Still, Beasts of the Southern Wild wraps up on a highly moving note, confirming Hushpuppy’s position as an inspiring young heroine. The film is an unusual journey into a child’s imagination, but there’s no denying that for all its quirks, over the course of 90 minutes, this little girl’s odyssey of self-discovery and self-belief will pierce your heart – and leave you deeply affected.
Last Updated: September 11, 2012