Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Posted by on Jan 2, 2012 in No Boys Allowed | 0 comments

Beasts of the Southern Wild - 6

Disclaimer: Wild beasts and wild southerners in the wild south. They are somewhat scary and adult-themed. But mostly they are wild.

The setting of Beasts of the Southern Wild is a place called The Bathtub. An area defined by its burst levee, its flimsy shacks flooded up to the ceiling, and its poverty-stricken residents stranded on roofs or make-shift boats. Images still fresh in our collective unconscious from the Katrina-hit New Orleans. But with its dreamlike visuals, apocalyptic circumstances, and storybook-like exposition (partly because it’s from a child’s point of view), Beasts could just as easily be taken for a modern fantasy or fable. The world is a kind of hyperreality – a combination of the two in which we can’t tell if it’s a microcosm of reality or a fantasy with elements of reality – and that’s partly what makes the film resonate so well.

The film follows a young girl named Beasts2Hushpuppy, who spends her days trying to understand the codes animals speak in, longing for her absent mother, and learning tough life lessons from her father Wink. He makes her live in a separate trailer home and, whether purposely or out of uncaring absence, teaches her self-reliance. In fact, he regularly puts her strength to the test, such as a particularly memorable scene in which he coaxes her to crack open a crab shell with her bare hands while chanting, “Beast It, Beast It, Beast It!” The adults of The Bathtub live in poverty and struggle, regularly turning to alcohol to help them through, and pass on their myth-like teachings to youngsters about the melting ice caps and the prehistoric beasts that will rise once again. The residents of The Bathtub know a big storm is coming, and with their “dry lander” neighbors separated by a levee wall, chances are they’ll be wiped out.

In a sense, Beasts has a lot in common with Where the Wild Things Are, in that it involves an imaginative kid surrounded by mostly absent adults, who travels via boat, encounters wild beasts, and comes of age. The driving force of the film is development. On one hand there’s the father’s quest to develop his daughter into a self-reliant leader. On the other’s there’s the filmmakers’ quest to develop its protagonist into an empathetic character we can root for. It amazingly pulls off both at the last moment, leading to surprisingly comforting rewards (considering most of the film is poverty and tragedy). This is a phenomenal feeling-like-a-kid-again experience for adults, but you might be weary for kid viewers. I don’t mean just because of the content (drinking, death, slightly scary boars), but mostly because most kids won’t have the patience to hang in there for the end.

At first the film establishes a sense of Hushpuppy’s life, background, and surroundings. It’s a beautiful, lyrical section that only Terrence Malick could have presented better. After some crucial exploits and life lessons, we sort of know and understand Hushpuppy, so it’s a perfect time to pull our heartstrings by presenting her with nearly unbearable circumstances. As an audience we’re wondering if this young girl will fold like so many of the adults around her have, or if her father’s seemingly cruel parenting approach will pay off and Hushpuppy will “Beast It!”

This is the first feature from director Benh Zeitlin and writer Lucy Alibar, who shot in post-Katrina locations with a tiny budget and led to wide critical acclaim (Oscar noms for picture, director, screenplay, and actress; plus the Grand Jury Award at Sundance and the Camera d’Or at Cannes). Quvenzhané Wallis (Hushpuppy) and Dwight Henry (Wink) are the key players in this cast entirely comprised of non-actors, and this film wouldn’t have half the resonance without them. You don’t need to hear Quvenzhané’s primordial screams or view her impressive young guns to believe her incredible strength, confidence, and fortitude as Hushpuppy, you need only see that stoic look and unmistakable fierceness in her eyes. We can only hope to see more from this talented group after an amazing debut.

Again, it’s the mysterious combination of reality and fantasy that make this film so affecting. And it does so to the very last shot, when you’re not sure if Hushpuppy is walking home atop the levee’s broken walls, or allegorically walking on water to join her disciples after the storm.

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