“Beasts of the Southern Wild” premiered last January at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize for dramatic films. At Cannes, it won the The Caméra d’Or (“Golden Camera”), which is awarded for the best first feature film (this is director Benh Zeitlin’s first feature-length film). It also won the similarly purposed Sutherland Award, awarded by the British Film Institute. Sight & Sound and AFI have both listed the film amongst their Bests of 2012.
With so many critical accolades showered upon it, I knew I had to see it before the year was out. I’m certainly glad that I did. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a challenging, moving, thought-provoking film that certainly deserves to be included in the discussion of the year’s best.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” provokes thought right from the opening moments. Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), the film’s six-year-old protagonist, walks about her destitute environs, listening to the heartbeats of the animals in her yard, narrating that every animal’s heart beats. She soon joins the other residents of her shanty dwelling, bayou community in a party and informs us, “The Bathtub has more holidays than the whole rest of the world.”
The tone is set going forward. Our six-year-old heroine will narrate, with her “wisdom of a child” point of view, as she faces the hardships and squalor around her.
A bigger challenge for Hushpuppy than the extreme poverty of her bayou community is that her father is neglectful. What attention he does afford her is intended to toughen her up and prepare her for the hardships she’s to face in life. Above and beyond the necessity to handle her Darwinian environs, however, he knows that she may need to be ready to survive on her own sooner than she’d like.
Much of the tension of the film is derived from watching the young Hushpuppy wander about unsupervised. She’s far younger than the age that most… civil societies would let their children roam about the world completely free, and indeed, she gets into considerable danger. She’s almost in as much danger when she’s with her father though. While not… straight up abusive, he’s certainly extremely harsh. You get the feeling he needs to be, however. Life in the “Bathtub” is difficult. They live in the barest of shelters, and feed off of the animals they raise and the seafood they can catch. They’re even more susceptible than most to the wrath of storms, living right on the edge of the gulf and with little to protect them. And indeed, when a storm hits (Katrina?), things change dramatically for the residents of the “Bathtub”.
The simplicity of “Beasts” lends itself to contemplation. Obviously there are environmental issues at hand, and socio-economic differences on display. But it’s also a stark reminder of our bestial nature… we are, still – no matter how civilized or cultured – still animals under the jurisdiction of nature. It also illustrates the beauty and power of life, and the strength inherent in children… and us all. It’s a quietly powerful, moving film that leaves us a lot to ponder. Viewers will undoubtedly be finding their own connections to Hushpuppy’s struggles, seeing metaphors, and extrapolating her attributes and experiences out to humanity as a whole.
On the basest level, we’re all just children in the ‘Tub.
Young Quvenzhané Wallis is a force to be reckoned with as Hushpuppy. It doesn’t seem as if she’ll be one of those child stars who score a big awards season nom (She’s not on the SAG or Golden Globe nominees listings), but in my opinion she certainly could have been. She’s alternately strong and scared, but always a child. At times, you’ll feel for her being a child in these circumstances. At others, you’ll be in awe of her capabilities and fortitude. Dwight Henry, as her father, is not a professional actor (or at least, wasn’t when this was shot), but you’d be hard pressed to pick up on it here if you didn’t know. He, too, turns in a powerful performance as a man struggling to do the best he can under difficult circumstances, in a culture and a lifestyle that’s completely foreign to those of us living in comfort in the modern world.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is close to a movie about modern cavemen, but by stripping away all but the basest comforts, we get a look at the very core of humanity. What we are, what we truly need, and what we’re capable of.