THE STORY – Six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in a remote Delta community. Wink is a stern taskmaster, but he is preparing his young daughter for the end of the world. When Wink falls mysteriously ill, nature seems to fall ill with him. Temperatures rise, the ice caps melt and fearsome prehistoric beasts called aurochs run loose. Rising waters threaten to engulf their community, sending Hushpuppy in search of her long-lost mother.
THE CAST – Quvenzhané Wallis & Dwight Henry
THE TEAM – Benh Zeitlin (Director/Writer) & Lucy Alibar (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 93 Minutes
By Dan Bayer
The world looks very different through a child’s eye than through an adult’s. But even though a child might not see things the same way as an adult, they can still see the truth of things. This is the key to Benh Zeitlin’s stunning debut feature, “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Young Hushpuppy (Quevenzhané Wallis) lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in a community called The Bathtub. The Bathtub is mainly cut off from society because of a levee built to protect the mainland from the rising waters. Despite the poor conditions, the terrible storms, and the lack of resources, a few residents of The Bathtub still choose to live there. But when Wink gets sick, Hushpuppy feels deep inside her that she must make him better, going on a journey that may just cross paths with the legendary creatures known as Aurochs, recently awoken from their centuries-long slumber frozen in ice and rampaging their way towards The Bathtub.
Are the aurochs real? Maybe. Part of the strength of Zeitlin’s film lies in how it seamlessly threads its realistic and fantastical elements together, thus giving even the most everyday things a patina of magic and wonder. We see the world through Hushpuppy’s eyes throughout, and what a world it is! The Bathtub is full of life, in its people, its animals, its plants… even its very soil seems full of life. Hushpuppy feels connected to all of it, and the film’s fantastic sound work takes great pains to emphasize the pulse of heartbeats on the soundtrack to make us feel as connected to the natural world as Hushpuppy does. All the film’s elements work together to give the whole a vibrancy that few films can match – the colors and movements of Ben Richardson’s cinematography, the pace of Affonso Gonçalves and Crockett Doob’s editing, the homespun cleverness of Alex DiGerlando’s production design, and perhaps most importantly, the music box-meets-jug band score by Zeitlin and Dan Romer. The whole team gives The Bathtub a joyous, lived-in feeling that is immediately welcoming without washing away the impoverished state of the area.
This impoverished state can turn many off from the film, believing that the conditions are not fit for children and that DCF would not be amiss in separating Hushpuppy from her erratic drunk of a father. This isn’t incorrect, but thinking that the film glorifies the poverty of Hushpuppy, Wink, and the rest of the bathtub residents is. Because the film is so locked into Hushpuppy’s perspective, we are only seeing the world as she sees it. And yes, that world is one with a lot of freedom, with adults who like to have fun. But the film makes it clear that the way of life in The Bathtub is unsustainable and that its denizens are choosing to stay despite all the evidence that they should leave. It also clarifies that these people have been put in this situation by a government that may not fully care about them and certainly does not know how to handle them, and in that light, what else can they do but do their best to survive? As Hushpuppy learns, in a sequence that feels like the intense violation it is to her, even as we the audience know that it should be ultimately for the best, what waits outside The Bathtub are aurochs, whether actual or in the bodies of people who would raze her hometown to the ground without a care for the life that people have made there. As a commentary on the state of poverty in America, particularly in the 9th Ward of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, co-screenwriters Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar (adapting her play “Juicy and Delicious”) don’t do much digging beneath the surface. What the film may lack in thematic depth, though, it more than makes up for in depth of character.
The true ace up the film’s sleeve is little Quevenzhané Wallis, who was only six years old at the time of filming. The actress possesses a wise-beyond-her-year quality that lends itself to the lightly philosophical narration and works beautifully with her boundless energy to make you feel for her instantly. She truly feels like an old soul in a child’s body, and that’s the key to making the slightly over-written dialogue feel like it’s really coming from Hushpuppy. Her face can go from joyously open to intractable stand-offishness at the drop of a hat. Whether through her own talent and intuition or Zeitlin’s sensitive work directing her, she delivers a performance that is never anything less than entirely believable. For proof, look no further than the film’s penultimate scene, when she and fellow newcomer Dwight Henry (giving a formidable performance in his own right) share a look that encapsulates their entire rocky relationship. It is one of the most astonishing youth performances ever captured on film, deservedly making Wallis the youngest nominee for the Best Leading Actress Oscar.
The world looks very different through a child’s eyes. Over the course of the film, we watch as a child learns that she does not always see the truth of the things she sees, that there are some things in the world that she simply cannot understand just yet. But the big picture of the world that she has always seen clearly: “I see that I’m a little piece in a big, big universe.” Through the mere act of being alive on this planet, we are all connected to every other living thing here. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a vibrant, moving testament to the world’s interconnectedness. It is also one of cinema’s most difficult, hardest-won coming-of-age stories, which makes that even more impressive. From a first-time director, writer, and leading actors, it’s a minor miracle of a motion picture.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – As perfect and unique as coming-of-age films get, Benh Zeitlin’s thrillingly-scored debut feature effortlessly shows how the world can feel magic to a child and uses that tone to lighten a story that is frighteningly close to reality. Astonishing debut performances from Quevenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry ground even the fantastical elements in something solidly real.
THE BAD – For some, the moments when the real world makes itself known may break the film’s spell.