Beasts of the Southern Wild Review


Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild works on so many levels that it’s hard to pinpoint just one or two particular reasons why it’s the best directorial debut in years and easily one of 2012’s finest films. The firecracker performance of young Quvenzhané Wallis is certainly one. Ditto Dwight Henry’s explosive supporting work. The way it blends fantastical story elements with giant, macro-level themes and a hyper-realistic style is simply jaw-dropping. And within this framework, we’re presented the year’s most moving character drama. Zeitlin packs an almost startling amount of material into a tight 95 minutes, and it all goes down smoothly. It’s an absolutely remarkable film.

Wallis plays Hushpuppy, a tough little girl who lives with her father, Wink (Henry), in a backwoods delta community known as the Bathtub. It’s a place that’s constantly threatened by storms that could wipe it off the map, but boy do its residents love life. Wink, however, doesn’t have much time left. He’s ill, but won’t tell Hushpuppy, who’s still in pain over her mother’s sudden abandonment years earlier. Instead, he spends his time teaching her lessons that will keep her alive and hopefully help her thrive. Of course, their friends and neighbors would never let her suffer—a lesson she and Wink learn when a massive flood comes and completely destroys their little community.

Weaved into this story are questions about one’s place in the world. Hushpuppy shares her pearls of wisdom via voiceover, which gives the film a distinct Days of Heaven vibe. The film also shares a great deal with post-apocalyptic stories like The Road (though, in John Hillcoat’s film, mankind’s destroyer wasn’t a species of recently unfrozen prehistoric beasts called aurochs, like it is in Zeitlin’s film).

Beasts also feels an awful lot like a fairy tale. Hushpuppy’s journey toward self-discovery, as well as the importance placed upon community, is ripped right out of a children’s storybook. But Zeitlin and cowriter Alibar don’t pull any punches. This is probably the realest fairy tale ever told. It’s packed with tragedy. You feel the characters’ anger. And abandonment is arguably the biggest influence on who Hushpuppy is as an individual.

Ultimately, however, this is an impressively crafted film all its own. DP Ben Richardson’s camera places you into the trenches of the Bathtub with these people—real salt-of-the-earth men, women, and children. Their dirt-stained shirts and sweat-tinged brows are probably foreign to most viewers of this film, yet you have absolutely no trouble identifying with them, feeling their pain, and cheering when they triumph.

It helps, of course, when you have two amazing performances out in front, and though Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry aren’t actors professionally, their work is almost incomparable this year. The former is adorable, of course, but she’s such a little ball of emotion, sass, and strength that Little Miss Sunshine-esque precociousness won’t cross your mind once.

Henry, meanwhile, shouts his way through the film, but it’s a warranted approach, considering his character’s predicament. It also gives the performance a lived-in quality you see maybe once or twice a year (see also: Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln). Basically, he isn’t afraid to really go for it, and if the film is working for you, Henry’s performance should, too.

The film is so interesting in that it talks about how everything in the universe fits together in a precise way. Everything, no matter how big or how small, has its place, and when you disrupt the natural flow of all things, chaos can ensue. Such is the case with Beasts of the Southern Wild as a piece of art. Take away Wallis, or Henry, or the brilliant score, or (God forbid) Zeitlin, who deserves a Best Director Oscar for his very first film, and you don’t have a film that’s nearly as strong. So that Beasts comes together the way it does is a minor miracle. That something so original can exist is inspiring. And that this little film could tower over so many other strong cinematic achievements this year is nothing short of magical.

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