Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Beasts of the Southern Wild opens the­at­ric­ally in Toronto on Friday July 13, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild (Director: Benh Zeitlin): Reactions to Benh Zeitlin’s first fea­ture film have ranged from crit­ical raves call­ing it a mas­ter­piece to Twitter gripes that it’s noth­ing more than a swampy mess. In my opin­ion, it’s neither, but the hand­ful of pres­ti­gi­ous awards it’s racked up so far are by no means undeserved.

As a fan of Zeitlin’s 2008 short film Glory at Sea, (embed­ded below) I went in know­ing what to expect. His blend of nar­rat­ive lyr­i­cism and a rough-hewn, hand­made style of art dir­ec­tion and film­mak­ing tech­nique isn’t for every­one. Yes, there’s some shaky cam­er­a­work. Yes, there are lofty philo­sop­ical sen­ti­ments placed into the mouth of our 6-year-old prot­ag­on­ist. You’ll either trust Zeitlin and jump in with both feet or you’ll be turned off right away. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll likely know which camp you fall into already.

For me, it was help­ful to remind myself that the story belongs to Hushpuppy, a six-year-old girl try­ing to make sense of a very harsh envir­on­ment. She might be unnat­ur­ally pre­co­cious and dis­play remark­able strength, but she’s really kind of mak­ing it up as she goes along. Her lyr­ical voi­ceover is her attempt to forge some sort of world view, and though it’s impress­ively poetic, it’s also pretty simplistic. Reminiscent in many ways of David Gordon Green’s debut fea­ture George Washington (2000), the film’s use of a child’s voi­ceover is likely to ali­en­ate some view­ers by attrib­ut­ing a kind of folk wis­dom to someone so young. But for me it mostly works, mainly due to the remark­able per­form­ance of Quvenzhané Wallis. This tiny power­house was just five years old when she audi­tioned, and if this isn’t one of the standout per­form­ances of the year, I don’t know what one would look like. Because the film is essen­tially her story, she needed to be very very good. And she’s even bet­ter than that.

She plays young Hushpuppy as someone dis­cov­er­ing that the world isn’t such a nice place. She lives in a ram­shackle com­munity of eccent­rics called The Bathtub that appears to be cut off from the main­land by a levee. While the main­land­ers live in fear of storms and the water, the den­iz­ens of The Bathtub enjoy more hol­i­days than any­one in the world. Every day seems like a party, and seen through a child’s eyes, these drunken fatal­istic rev­els might seem like fun. As adults, we can see the dark­ness and des­per­a­tion in these lives.

Her father Wink seems angry a lot, when he’s not dis­tant. In fact, when he wanders off for sev­eral days leav­ing her to take care of her­self, we don’t get the impres­sion that this is out of char­ac­ter. But when he comes back wear­ing a hos­pital gown, Hushpuppy begins to worry. Added to that, the local teacher has no qualms about ter­ri­fy­ing the chil­dren with stor­ies about the com­ing storms. She even tells them about pre­his­toric beasts called aurochs frozen by the Ice Age into gla­ciers; gla­ciers which are now melt­ing, by the way.

In the way that young chil­dren tend to do, when she real­izes the “big” storm is com­ing, and that Wink may be dying, she con­nects it with some­thing she’s done wrong. But because of her father’s relent­less drive to toughen her up phys­ic­ally and men­tally, she doesn’t shrink from the world’s bru­tal­ity, but rises to meet it head on. It’s this core mes­sage that is most mov­ing, even when the res­id­ents’ refusal to leave the flooded and dan­ger­ous Bathtub seems to make no sense at all.

“Strong anim­als don’t run away from danger,” Hushpuppy intones toward the end of the film. And she proves her­self a strong animal, stand­ing up quite lit­er­ally to the beasts of the title. It’s power­ful, but also ter­ribly sad. She’s had the inno­cence kicked out of her at a much younger age than most kids do. Hushpuppy might be six years old but it feels like she’s never been a child.

I do have some prob­lems with the film, chief among them its way of roman­ti­ciz­ing poverty and dis­aster. Although he’s avoided most of the nor­mal cliches of por­tray­ing res­id­ents of the bayou, he hasn’t been able to res­ist the dra­matic pull of Katrina. The plot also goes ser­i­ously baggy about two-thirds of the way into the film, when Hushpuppy and some other kids find their way to a float­ing brothel in search of some moth­erly love.

But for a first fea­ture, Beasts of the Southern Wild will put Benh Zeitlin firmly on the map of young American film­makers to watch. If he’s able to ful­fill his stated determ­in­a­tion to stay put in New Orleans and res­ist Hollywood’s siren call, his next film will be inter­est­ing, if only to see if the film­maker, like his char­ac­ters, can forge a life after the storm.


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One Response to Beasts of the Southern Wild

  1. Joseph says:

    Great reviews, James! I agree that Wallis’s per­form­ance will be a standout this year. Can’t see how it couldn’t be, to be hon­est. And I was def­in­itely one of those people who fell for this film from the very begin­ning. I found myself glued almost the entire time to Hushpuppy’s jour­ney. I did not find her nar­ra­tion to be overly philo­soph­ical for someone her age, that for the most part, it was simple enough to have come from her mind. This is a test­a­ment I think to the writ­ing, to be able to achieve depth while keep­ing it simple. For me, I expect to see this film eas­ily make my Top 10 of 2012.

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