A film review by Craig J. Koban August 17, 2012

RANK:  #7


2012, PG-13, 93 mins.


Hushpuppy: Quvenzhané Wallis / Wink: Dwight Henry / Jean Battiste: Levy Easterly / Walrus: Lowell Landes / Little Jo: Pamela Harper

Directed by Benh Zeitlin / Written by Lucy Alibar and Zeitlin, based on Alibar's play “Juicy and Delicious.”

There are so very few films that effortlessly transport us to a different time and place and create an out-of-body aura in viewers, during which – for a few hours in the theater – we grow less conscious of our surroundings and become wholly immersed in what’s transpiring on screen.  BEASTS OF SOUTHERN WILD is just such a titanic achievement for how it envisions a world somehow familiar, but ethereally foreign to get utterly transfixed in.  It contains a screen universe where reality and fantasy coalesce and are fused together by performances so raw and persuasive that it becomes difficult to discredit any flights of fancy that its story takes.  

It’s a stunningly masterful work that defies broad categorization; it’s neither a reality-based drama or a coming-of-age morality play or a mythic fable or fantasy, but the film’s complete unwillingness to catalogue itself makes it an unforgettable original.  If I were forced to describe what it is about then I would state that it’s a tale of a relationship between father and daughter; an intense and brutal portrait of an American community – completely divorced for the larger industrialized world – that sheepishly tries to fend for itself in the days leading up to a natural catastrophe; and, perhaps most crucially, it’s a chronicle of how one young and innocent mind is unsullied by the world around her and how she finds it within herself to survive through fortitude, courage, and limitless eagerness.  

All of this is set within a world that feels like our own, but oddly isn’t.  The film thrusts viewers headfirst into its story right from the beginning and never takes laborious time in wasteful exposition.  We meet Hushpuppy (played by an extraordinary newcomer named Quvenzhane Wallis, a name to remember come Oscar season), a six-year-old girl that lives with her tough-minded and order-giving father, Wink (another astonishing newcomer, Dwight Henry) in a totally impoverished – but relatively content – existence in “The Bathtub".  In early scenes we are not quite sure where the Bathtub is - it could have just as well been set on another post-apocalyptic planet - but as the film patiently progresses we learn that it's a southern bayou community on an island offshore from New Orleans, separated by levies.  Segregated from just about everyone else in the world, the Bathtub looks like a nightmarish hellscape of depravity, famine, and daily emotional and physical struggle.  The plucky Hushpuppy, though - always the optimist - calls it “the prettiest place on Earth” in her film-spanning voiceover track. 

Her father is not so cherry.  He’s a heavy boozer, verbally abusive, and frequently an irresponsible paternal figure, but this may or may not have something to do with him having to forge a defense mechanism of sorts – no matter how self-damaging – to survive the horrendous outside conditions.  Wink does love his daughter, albeit in the harshest form of “tough” love.  He teaches her all of the basic necessities of survival, like hunting, cooking, and so forth, realizing that his time with her is limited.  He is physically a sick man as well, which he pathetically tries to keep from Hushpuppy, but both of them are tested when Global changes threaten their existence in the form of a flood, which all but surrounds the Bathtub in rising contaminated waters littered by decaying corpses of animals.  



Fully understanding that there’s nothing left for them if they stay where they are, Wink and Hushpuppy abandon their destroyed shanties for boats in search of a new home.  Time is not on their sides, though, as the blood disease that is ravaging Wink by the day is quickly killing him.  Concurrent to this story is one that may – or may not – occur within the recesses of Hushpuppy’s fertile imagination: the events of the flooding of the Bathtub are linked with the melting of the polar ice caps, which in turn unleashes prehistoric boar-like creatures the size of small dinosaurs that are slowly migrating across North America to the Gulf coast.  When an attempt by governmental workers to rescue Wink, Hushpuppy, and their community fails, some of them try to return to the Bathtub to start over…if they can. 

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD marks the highly auspicious first film of Behn Zeitlin, and it’s one of the most astonishing debuts I’ve seen.  Adapting Lucy Alibar’s one-act play JUICY AND DELICIOUS and using a shoestring budget with 16mm cameras, Zeitlin creates wondrous production artifice with very limited means.  He and his team – made up of a very scant professional crew – shot the film in post-Katrina locations in the most devastated bayous of Louisiana, and the result is never-endingly believable.  Every detail of the Bathtub comes utterly alive through the film; you can feel the throbbing heat, the intense humidity, the economic depression, the demoralizing famine, and all of the other natural, day-to-day minutia of the community’s unsettlingly living conditions and existence.  Within a few short minutes of being dropped in this world you feel immediately a part of it. 

The film is ostensibly told through Hushpuppy’s young and innocent eyes; she has largely been unblemished by decades of horrible living conditions, increasing cynicism, and nagging self-doubt.  She is arguably the only beacon of hope in this otherwise brutal and bleak film, seeing as virtually nothing seems to phase or truly upset her: not impoverished and dilapidated living conditions, not hurricanes and intense storms, not her father’s imminent death or the disappearance of her mother years ago, and, hell, not even the very presence of the thawed-out creatures, which show up at one point and seem to stop in their tracks when they lock glances at this limitlessly strong-willed figure...maybe out of respect...maybe out of fear.  

I’ve seen many child performances over the years, but few are as convincing, natural, and strongly assured as Wallis, who was amazingly just five-years-old when cast as an untrained actress.  She has the impossibly daunting task of carrying the whole film on her very young and inexperienced shoulders, and what’s so mesmerizing about her is how she crafts a performance of such layered and nuanced diversity: she’s valiant, deviant, head-strong, and full of passion and inquisitiveness about a world around her that seems to have given up on her people.  She radiates good-natured optimism even in the most demoralizing instances and seems to be able to boldly hold her own in just about any situation.  Yet, she still has the impressionable naiveté of a child to compliment her own inner and outward strength as a protector of her people and way of life.  If Wallis is nominated for an Academy Award she’ll be the youngest ever; for an actress to have such an authenticity and potency at such a very young age is a miraculous feat worthy of such future accolades. 

She is paired largely with Dwight Henry, who – as incredulous as it sounds - owned and worked at a bakery and Deli when cast as Hushpuppy’s father.  He has gone on record as saying that he doesn’t want another acting gig.  What a shame, because his Oscar-worthy work here and the scenes he shares with Wallis creates one of the most tangible and ultimately heartbreaking portrayals of a problematic father/daughter relationship that I’ve seen.  Henry and Willis are the emotional glue that keeps the entire film afloat; even when it dashes with the fantastical, their gritty and convincing performances keeps the whole film entrenched in a searing verisimilitude.  They are unforgettable characters in an unforgettable film, one that evokes a sense of endless wonder in its warts-and-all world.  In the end, though, the film is a touching and uplifting work – despite its nihilism - because Hushpuppy always manages to see beauty and hope in the midst of terror and oppression.  BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD will linger with me for an awfully long time.    

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