Beasts of the Southern Wild
It is something special when a film can lift you off your feet even when you are expecting it to.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a poetic fairy tale told through the point of view of a child’s imagination who has unflinching determination to find her place in the world. The film was very well received at it’s premier with the New York Times saying that it is the best film to come out of Sundance in twenty years. It went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance as well as the Camera d’Or at Cannes. I received chills when lines were spoken, teared up during emotional scenes and was engulfed in the universe that was created. It is the most imaginative and emotional film of the year.
Beasts of the Southern Wild opens with narration from a 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) who describes where she lives as the prettiest place on Earth – a place that locals call the Bathtub. Many of us would probably consider this isolated offshore New Orleans community a dump but the small community of residents hold on to it with relentless strength. Most would sacrifice everything they own to protect the land, which is what they will soon have to do.
Hushpuppy knows that she is special but at the same time she understands that she is just a small piece of a big universe. She believes that animals speak to her in code, although sometimes their messages are not all that important. Furthermore, she believes that everyone around her, including herself, is a wild animal. Her teacher reinforces this idea when giving her class a lesson on surviving in the wild that everything is meat, including themselves. This idea is shown when Hushpuppy visits a hospital and believes that it is a place where they plug sick animals into the wall.
It is hard to say that Hushpuppy lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry) as she lives in her own make-shift “house” that resides next to his. This may be due to the fact that there is no room for two people to live in the ramshackle. Perhaps it is because Hushpuppy likes to have the place filled with items that remind her of her mother, who Wink claims “swam away” one day. But the most probable reason is that Wink knows that he is not fit raise a child and this separation physically represents that.
Even though Wink may not be very fit to be a father he still preaches what he knows best, how to survive on your own. He does the best that he can do to show Hushpuppy how to self-sufficiently live off of the land. At first you assume that this is because it is the only way Wink knows how to live, which it is, but soon come to realize that his death approaching fast from his drinking habits. His questionable tough love tactics may prove to be effective training for Hushpuppy when he is no longer around to take care of her.
A huge storm is said to be rolling in as many of the residents scramble to get out of Mother Nature’s way. But Wink and some other hard-nosed refuse to leave the most important thing to them, the Bathtub. Their community is their own world and they have no interest in living on the other side of the levee. A place where people go to the grocery store to get their food instead of catching it yourself is a foreign place and lifestyle they wish not to visit.
Most of the adults that stayed behind woke up from their daily hangovers to discover that the Bathtub is completely flooded. This means Wink and Hushpuppy must travel with a truck bed converted boat in order to get around. The longevity of the Bathtub is uncertain as salt water killed much of the available food options but even worse than nature’s wrath is government authorities that are coming in to remove them from the official evacuation area.
It is impossible to tell that Beasts of the Southern Wild was the Benh Zeitlin’s first feature film. The editing, cinematography, storyline, dialog and music all complimented one another perfectly. With a relatively low budget of just over a million dollars, he is able to make childlike imaginations of extinct creatures come alive as well as introduces more serious issues such as political allegories. He handles theses difficult portrayals magnificently.
Throughout the film I kept trying to figure out what the extinct Aurochs creatures represented. At first I thought they may represent the government authorities coming after them to “take them away” from their land. Then I thought it represented how Hushpuppy viewed herself in the world, wild beasts of the south. But near the end it seems like they represented her fears that she eventually conquers. Maybe it was something completely different or a combination of them all but the director leaves the interpretation up to your imagination.
There are a series of great shots when Hushpuppy is picturing her mother from the story that Wink tells. The shot follows the mother at waist level, from the perspective of Hushpuppy, as she walks around the kitchen. Magical things happen when her mother was in the kitchen and so was the scene when Hushpuppy eventually sees her mother. To top it all off, it is ingeniously filmed at the same level.
Quvenzhané Wallis had never acted before her role as Hushpuppy, which makes her incredible performance even more astonishing. When she tried out for the role she was only five years old but stood out enough to where Zeitlin picked her among the 4,000 others that were considered for the role. It is easy to see why. She was mesmerizing on screen and her voice narrating the film was unforgettable.
At the time of this writing, there is no one else that comes close to her performance this year and I would be shocked if anyone does. Wallis should be the front-runner to take home an Oscar for Best Female Lead at this year’s Academy Awards. Also a Best Picture nomination seems to be obvious even though it is still quite early to make such statements. These accolades would all be huge wins for the young crew as it still has not received a wide release in theaters and history shows that summer films tend to be more forgotten by the Academy.
Speaking of awards, the film may make the Independent Spirit Awards rather uninteresting to watch as it has the potential to clean up many of the awards. Best Female Lead, Best Picture, Best First Feature, and Best Director I would have to think would be shoe-ins for Beasts of the Southern Wild. We will know for sure in about six months when the award season is in full force.
Beasts of the Southern Wild can be a hard film to describe to those who have not seen it, much like last year’s The Tree of Life. It is an ambitious film with philosophical views on how the universe works from the eyes of a brave young child. My anticipation for watching this film was instantly high upon watching the trailer for the first time. This is a dangerous yet hard to avoid game to play as a film reviewer as it often leads to disappointment. It is something special when a film can lift you off your feet even when you are expecting it to.