A film review by Craig J. Koban August 17, 2012
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
2012, PG-13, 93 mins.
2012, PG-13, 93 mins.
Hushpuppy: Quvenzhané Wallis /
Wink: Dwight Henry /
Jean Battiste: Levy Easterly /
Walrus: Lowell Landes /
Little Jo: Pamela Harper
are so very few films that effortlessly transport us to a different time and
place and create an out-of-body aura in viewers, during which – for a
few hours in the theater – we grow less conscious of our surroundings and become wholly immersed in what’s transpiring on screen.
BEASTS OF SOUTHERN WILD is just such a titanic achievement for how
it envisions a world somehow familiar, but ethereally foreign to get
utterly transfixed in. It
contains a screen universe where reality and fantasy coalesce and are
fused together by performances so raw and persuasive that it becomes
difficult to discredit any flights of fancy that its story takes.
a stunningly masterful work that defies broad categorization; it’s
neither a reality-based drama or a coming-of-age morality play or a
fable or fantasy, but the film’s complete unwillingness to
catalogue itself makes it an unforgettable original.
If I were forced to describe what it is about then I would state
that it’s a tale of a relationship between father and daughter; an
intense and brutal portrait of an American community – completely
divorced for the larger industrialized world – that sheepishly tries to
fend for itself in the days leading up to a natural catastrophe; and, perhaps
most crucially, it’s a chronicle of how one young and innocent mind is
unsullied by the world around her and how she finds it within herself to
survive through fortitude, courage, and limitless eagerness.
of this is set within a world that feels like our own, but oddly isn’t.
The film thrusts viewers headfirst into its story right from the
beginning and never
takes laborious time in wasteful exposition. We
meet Hushpuppy (played by an extraordinary newcomer named Quvenzhane
Wallis, a name to remember come Oscar season), a six-year-old girl that lives
with her tough-minded and order-giving father, Wink (another astonishing
newcomer, Dwight Henry) in a totally impoverished – but
relatively content – existence in “The Bathtub".
In early scenes we are not quite sure where the Bathtub is - it could have just as well been set on another
post-apocalyptic planet - but as the film patiently progresses we learn
that it's a southern bayou community on an island offshore from
New Orleans, separated by levies. Segregated from just about everyone else in the world, the
Bathtub looks like a nightmarish hellscape of depravity, famine, and daily
emotional and physical struggle. The
plucky Hushpuppy, though - always the optimist - calls it “the prettiest
place on Earth” in her film-spanning voiceover track.
father is not so cherry. He’s a heavy boozer, verbally abusive, and frequently an
irresponsible paternal figure, but this may or may not have something to do
with him having to forge a defense mechanism of sorts – no matter how self-damaging – to
survive the horrendous outside conditions. Wink
does love his daughter, albeit in the harshest form of “tough” love.
He teaches her all of the basic necessities of survival, like
hunting, cooking, and so forth, realizing that his time with her is
limited. He is physically a sick man as well, which he pathetically tries to keep from Hushpuppy, but
both of them are tested when Global changes threaten their existence in
the form of a flood, which all but surrounds the Bathtub in rising
contaminated waters littered by decaying corpses of animals.
understanding that there’s nothing left for them if they stay where they
are, Wink and Hushpuppy abandon their destroyed shanties for boats in
search of a new home. Time is
not on their sides, though, as the blood disease that is ravaging Wink by
the day is quickly killing him. Concurrent
to this story is one that may – or may not – occur within the recesses
of Hushpuppy’s fertile imagination: the events of the flooding of the
Bathtub are linked with the melting of the polar ice caps, which in turn
unleashes prehistoric boar-like creatures the size of small dinosaurs that
are slowly migrating across North America to the Gulf coast.
When an attempt by governmental workers to rescue Wink, Hushpuppy,
and their community fails, some of them try to return to the Bathtub to
start over…if they can.
OF THE SOUTHERN WILD marks the highly auspicious first film of Behn
Zeitlin, and it’s one of the most astonishing debuts I’ve seen.
Adapting Lucy Alibar’s one-act play JUICY AND DELICIOUS and using
a shoestring budget with 16mm cameras, Zeitlin creates wondrous production
artifice with very limited means. He
and his team – made up of a very scant professional crew – shot the
film in post-Katrina locations in the most devastated bayous of Louisiana,
and the result is never-endingly believable.
Every detail of the Bathtub comes utterly alive through the film;
you can feel the throbbing heat, the intense humidity, the economic
depression, the demoralizing famine, and all of the other natural,
day-to-day minutia of the community’s unsettlingly living conditions and
existence. Within a few short
minutes of being dropped in this world you feel immediately a part of it.
film is ostensibly told through Hushpuppy’s young and innocent eyes; she
has largely been unblemished by decades of horrible living
conditions, increasing cynicism, and nagging self-doubt.
She is arguably the only beacon of hope in this otherwise brutal
and bleak film, seeing as virtually nothing seems to phase or truly upset her: not
impoverished and dilapidated living conditions, not hurricanes and intense
storms, not her father’s imminent death or the disappearance of her
mother years ago, and, hell, not even the very presence of the thawed-out
creatures, which show up at one point and seem to stop in their tracks
when they lock glances at this limitlessly strong-willed figure...maybe
out of respect...maybe out of fear.
seen many child performances over the years, but few are as convincing,
natural, and strongly assured as Wallis, who was amazingly just
five-years-old when cast as an untrained actress.
She has the impossibly daunting task of carrying the whole film on
her very young and inexperienced shoulders, and what’s so mesmerizing about her is how she crafts a performance of such layered and nuanced
diversity: she’s valiant, deviant, head-strong, and full of passion and
inquisitiveness about a world around her that seems to have given up on
her people. She radiates
good-natured optimism even in the most demoralizing instances and seems to
be able to boldly hold her own in just about any situation.
Yet, she still has the impressionable naiveté of a child to
compliment her own inner and outward strength as a protector of her people
and way of life. If Wallis is
nominated for an Academy Award she’ll be the youngest ever; for an actress to have such an authenticity and potency at such a
very young age is a miraculous feat worthy of such future accolades.
She is paired largely with Dwight Henry, who – as incredulous as it sounds - owned and worked at a bakery and Deli when cast as Hushpuppy’s father. He has gone on record as saying that he doesn’t want another acting gig. What a shame, because his Oscar-worthy work here and the scenes he shares with Wallis creates one of the most tangible and ultimately heartbreaking portrayals of a problematic father/daughter relationship that I’ve seen. Henry and Willis are the emotional glue that keeps the entire film afloat; even when it dashes with the fantastical, their gritty and convincing performances keeps the whole film entrenched in a searing verisimilitude. They are unforgettable characters in an unforgettable film, one that evokes a sense of endless wonder in its warts-and-all world. In the end, though, the film is a touching and uplifting work – despite its nihilism - because Hushpuppy always manages to see beauty and hope in the midst of terror and oppression. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD will linger with me for an awfully long time.