The 2012 movie year had more than its share of big time blockbusters and I have no problem with that. I’ve never felt that a big budget and tons of resources automatically disqualifies a movie from being great. But sometimes we can grow weary when being soaked with huge Hollywood box office popcorn pictures and we need a film that reminds us of the technique and craft at the heart of good filmmaking. We need a movie that gets back to the core of pure cinema. And we need a movie and gives us something we’ve never seen or experienced before. Thank you Behn Zeitlin for giving us all of these things and more with “Beasts of the Southern Wild”.
“Beasts “is a movie that has met its fair share of praise as well as criticism and I could spend a lot of time going over the different likes and gripes that have been thrown its way. But when it comes down to it, “Beasts” is a visceral and emotional experience that will either pull you in or push you away. If you’re not engaged emotionally, your reaction will be tepid at best. Personally, “Beasts” grabbed me and carried me through the full gamut of emotions so effectively that even when I was being manipulated I just didn’t care. There is so much heart and feeling that saturates this film. It’s that feeling that’s made more powerful by the circumstances and environment surrounding the story. And the fact that first-time filmmaker Zeitlin can convey it all through his smorgasbord of sensibility and technique is phenomenal.
The story takes place in an isolated and poverty-stricken community located in the New Orleans delta. This patch of land behind the mainland’s levee is simply known as The Bathtub and that’s where young 6-year old Hushpuppy lives. Most of the story is told through Hushpuppy’s eyes and we see the harsh reality of her circumstances viewed from her tender perspective. This movie has been called a fantasy picture by many but I don’t see it that way. It’s all about a young girl trying to make sense of the cruel and difficult world she lives in. Often times her imagination and innocent naïveté interprets her world in a fantastical way. But it’s really a young girl trying to process her surroundings the best way she knows how.
Hushpuppy’s life in The Bathtub is a difficult and gritty existence but its all she knows. From the disturbing living conditions to her heartbreaking relationship with her father, Hushpuppy’s life is filled with obstacles that most of us could never imagine. Zeitlin realizes this world through a sobering realism that sometimes seems to focus on the worst of everything. He pulls no punches in creating this seemingly forsaken post-Katrina landscape – an almost surreal disaster area except for the fact that it’s so close to home. We experience Hushpuppy’s ramshackle home and her daily struggle to find food. But their hardships multiply after a massive storm hits, flooding the area and driving them from their home. They reunite with a small group of remaining neighbors and together try to survive in the only place they all call home.
A major component of the story is Hushpuppy’s father Wink. He’s a hotheaded and sometimes volatile man who can evoke feelings of hate and disgust from the audience. But he’s also a layered and complex character whose inadequacies and inner struggles are constantly warring within him. One minute I wanted to beat him to a pulp. Another minute I felt genuine sympathy for this man who was trying to keep his daughter alive the best way that he knew how. Hushpuppy’s mother left him to raise her, something he is at times utterly incapable of doing. The poverty level stuff is truly unsettling. But it’s this relationship between daughter and father that lands one emotional gut punch after another.
This offers me a good chance to talk about the performances. Let me get this out of the way first, newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis is sensational. She was only 5-years old when she was first cast and 6-years old during the filming. I don’t recall ever seeing a child actor or actress handle this type of material as well and she does here. She beautifully sells every look, every motion, every smile, and every tear. Now to be honest a lot of credit has to go to Zeitlin. The director knows how to use her and he never overextends his young actress. He frames scenes and shots with her limitations in mind and then harnesses her strengths in a remarkable way. But I don’t want to underplay how good she is here. It’s one of the year’s best performances.
There’s also been a lot of debate over Dwight Henry’s performance as Wink. He’s been criticized as being too loud, too in-your-face, and too exaggerated. I do agree that there are a few scenes where he could have been dialed back a bit. But I think it’s more of an issue of how he’s written instead of how he’s played. Like Wallis, Henry had no professional acting background and for him to bring as much out of this character as he does is impressive. It is a bold and brash performance but it’s never to the point of showy. In fact, I think it works perfectly within the context of the story.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a rare film that leaves you feeling a variety of things and contemplating a variety of topics. It tiptoes around politics and instead focuses on shaking and waking us to the realities that aren’t far from home. It’s also a movie of contrasts. There’s the ugliness of poverty wedged within the beauty of nature. There’s the beauty of community mixed with the tragedy of loss and need. And most importantly it’s the beauty of the optimistic innocence of a child’s imagination against a harsh, and in this case, sad reality that she just can’t comprehend. Some may find “Beasts” smothering and unrelenting, and its ending won’t leave you smiling on a mountaintop. But I love how the film left me with a plethora of emotions. I love how the film’s tenderness melded with its real-life rigidity. And I love how three movie newcomers came together to give us one of the best movies of the year.