Title: Beasts of the Southern Wild
Directed By: Benh Zeitlin
Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Jonshel Alexander, Marilyn Barbarin, Kaliana Brower, Nicholas Clark, Henry D. Coleman, Levy Easterly, Philip B. Lawrence
Should a storm blow in tomorrow with the power to devastate New York City, I’d up and leave in a heartbeat, doing anything necessary to ensure my family’s safety and well-being. While the characters from Beasts of the Southern Wild have a very similar mentality, it’s nearly impossible for someone from a big city or a well-to-do area to truly understand what compels them to make certain decisions and while the film may not be entirely convincing in that respect, its ability to open up minds and entice viewers to just consider something that different is quite rousing.
Beasts of the Southern Wild centers on Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a young girl living in “The Bathtub,” an area cut off by a giant levee. Despite the widespread dedication to their isolated bayou community, many pack their things and leave when a storm approaches. Hushpuppy’s father, Wink (Dwight Henry), however, demands that they stay and while the pair survives the storm along with a handful of other dedicated Bathtub residents, they’re left with nothing. Regardless, they refuse to abide by the mandatory evacuation and strive to rebuild The Bathtub back into the home it used to be.
The plot of Beasts of the Southern Wild is quite simple, but also bears a significant amount of depth making it notably poignant. There’s no grand scheme to get the community back on its feet nor a big climax that results in a happily ever after. First time feature director-writer Benh Zeitlin simply lays out a rather loose narrative and lets Hushpuppy guide you through it as she pleases.
While six-year-olds generally make for undeniably adorable protagonists, Zeitlin turns Hushpuppy into much more than that. Even though she’s only six, she’s a very sound lead with a childish exterior, but an immense amount of knowhow and understanding. Even before Hushpuppy’s joyous approach to life is dashed by her father’s heart condition and the results of the storm, she has an appreciation for life not found in many children, or even adults for that matter. While we may not run around listening to animals’ heartbeats like she does, watching her do just that does spur understanding within the viewer, making Hushpuppy a particularly endearing character.
That character also benefits from the natural talents of Wallis. A first time feature actress, she appears entirely uninhibited. Not only can it be a tough task to direct a six-year-old, but Zeitlin went with a six-year-old who’d never made a film before. While she’s got a mesmerizing on screen presence and is likely very naturally talented, Zeitlin deserves a great deal of credit for guiding Wallis to such a moving performance. And the same goes for Henry as well. Similarly, Henry was not an actor, rather a baker, and regardless of innate ability, acting in a full feature is no easy task, but Henry pulls it off flawlessly with Zeitlin’s support.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Beast of the Southern Wild is Hushpuppy’s relationship with her father. Wink’s tough on Hushpuppy, so tough, that you can’t help but to wonder whether or not she should even be in his care. However, then Zeitlin weaves in a demonstration of unconditional love and the thought of someone tearing them apart is downright heartbreaking and, considering Wink’s diagnosed with a deadly heart condition early on in the film, the entire piece bears this sense of dread, making the experience even more emotional.
Then there’s also the issue of whether or not Hushpuppy and Wink should even be living in The Bathtub. After the storm comes and goes, the area truly is uninhabitable and while you’d love to see Hushpuppy, Wink and the rest of the Bathtub residents whisked off to a comfortable shelter, they’re so passionate about staying there it creates a knot in your stomach. At the onset, the conditions are so extreme, you ache to see them all get to safety, but mere minutes later, their passion is pulling you in the other direction, enticing you to root for them to stay and rebuild the area instead. Then again, the thought that something’s terribly wrong about living in this environment never entirely fades, making Beasts of the Southern Wild this relentlessly conflicting experience.
Zeitlin doesn’t tie this one up neatly confirming you should be rooting for one side or the other, rather his film will leave you oozing with differing emotions, emotions that you’ll carry with you long after the film ends. It’s a frustrating juxtaposition to take with you, but when a film is so powerful you can’t help but to keep mulling over a situation you might never have been open to before, that’s something that’s entirely worthwhile.