Beasts Of The Southern Wild
Every once in a while, a film comes along that smashes into your chest, grabs a gentle but firm hold of your beating heart, and doesn’t let go. This is what happened when I saw the Sundance winner Beasts of the Southern Wild. I knew little about the story, but within seconds of it starting, I knew that I was about to be transformed. Because this is not a film like most. It is film as poetry. It is not a "story," so much as it is a feeling. It is a story so immersive, it makes you feel as if you have become a part of it. And in its swift 93-minute running time, it gathers you in its embrace and holds you tight until it finally kisses you gently on the forehead and allows you to run off and change the world.
Based on the stage play "Juicy and Delicious" by Lucy Alibar and directed by Benh Zeitlin, "Beasts" was a labor of love created by a family of filmmakers who strove to create a world full of truth.
Starring a cast of newcomers, the film is set in "The Bathtub" of Louisiana - a Bayou community cut off from the world by an extensive levee. There, a small community of survivors lives in abject poverty but with a joy, acceptance, and hope that defies their living situation. Within that community are a harsh father named Wink and his fiercely independent six-year old daughter called Hushpuppy. They two live on a small patch of soggy land complete with pigs and a scraggly dog with their home consisting of a tin shack for Wink and an old trailer for Hushpuppy. Hushpuppy’s mother left when she was very young and her only memories are the stories her father tells her about how they met.
Wink is a seemingly irresponsible father. A drunk and with a habit of disappearing for days at a time, he is also showing signs of failing health - a truth not lost on Hushpuppy. The two live in a kind of symbiotic existence, with Hushpuppy responsible well beyond her years.
Meanwhile, Hushpuppy’s school-teacher tells her small class of unkempt girls about mysterious pre-historic creatures called the Aurochs that are supposedly frozen in glaciers. But due to massive climate change, Hushpuppy feels they are suddenly being thawed and making their way to the Bathtub.
Worse still, a storm arrives. Knowing the type of environment they live in, the inhabitants of the Bathtub realize that any big storm could spell doom for their little part of the world in the same way that Hurricane Katrina wiped out entire communities. When they are truly flooded out, their existence beings to change - even though they try to resist. But it’s when Winks’s health truly begins to fail that the true transformation of Hushpuppy will occur and she will morph from imaginative and obedient child, to ferocious warrior. Along the way, father and daughter will bond in original and strange ways, and the truth about his often startling behavior will come into focus.
The audience’s emotional journey of "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is something that feels pure and fresh so I won’t reveal any more about what occurs. Suffice to say that it all unfolds in ways that are entirely unexpected and deeply moving.
Zeitlin’s talent as a filmmaker and as co-writer of the project is overwhelmingly displayed on screen. He captures an area of the world and the people that inhabit it with a documentarian’s eye and the ability to grab your heart without manipulating it. It is one of the most honest films I’ve seen in years. And not only does he helm the project, but he also composed the gorgeous and inspiring score along with Dan Romer.
While the filmmaking is as close to perfection as you can get, it is the performances that are truly breath-taking. Dwight Henry came to the project after answering an ad for an open audition. He is the owner of a bakery and had no previous acting experience; something you would never suspect by the visceral and dangerous performance he gives on screen. It is nearly flawless.
And then there is Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy. After seeing over four thousand girls for the role, Wallis won the filmmakers over with her quiet intensity and imagination. While she doesn’t have a lot of lines in the film, she is graced with a striking voice-over that gives the film the audible poetry to match the visuals. "I see that I’m a little piece of a big big universe, and that makes things right."
But even without a lot of dialogue, it is her ability to express her character through her face and her eyes that is something of revelation. She is onscreen almost non-stop throughout the film and for a five year old to carry this story on her little shoulders is nothing short of startling. She is the emotional heartbeat of the film, and as a result, we are fully drawn in to her story.
At the end of the year, this will be the film to beat at Oscar time. It is a film that will sneak up on audiences who might normally not venture into an indie film inhabited by unknowns and with a more lyrical sense of place and story. But when Hushpuppy tells us, "They gonna know: that once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her Daddy in the Bathtub," you will believe her.
And you will never forget them.