Reviewed by Ian Forbes, Sobering Conclusion
Set on the unprotected side of the levees in Louisiana, an ad-hoc town named The Bathtub is the setting for director/co-writer Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. Its residents are well below the poverty line and get by with nerve, resourcefulness, and a strong sense of community. The story is centered on 6-year old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father Wink (Dwight Henry); the manner in which they live and how they and the people around them cope with a storm that floods the area.
From the opening frame, as the handheld camerawork and grainy cinematography reveal, this is a deeply intimate and personal tale. The narrative is something of a lyrical poem; for while there is a basic plot structure the messages of the film are multi-layered and range in scope from Hushpuppy’s accelerated coming-of-age, to the socio-economic realities of the region, to global warming. In short, this is not a film you duck into for light escapism. However, it saddens me that making such a statement is more often than not seen as a turn off. Sure, there’s a valid need for entertainment for entertainment’s sake but experiencing a fresh viewpoint on subjects that create discussion and understanding shouldn’t be seen as a chore; there’s room for both and this film just happens to be the latter.
Before one even attempts to dissect the overall impact of this work, what is readily evident are the mesmerizing and powerful performances of the actors. Everyone feels authentic and there’s a good reason for that, they’re not trained actors. There’s a pseudo-documentary like atmosphere permeating the project, resulting from the film’s aesthetic and the raw approach of its subjects. It’s captivating, and at times heartbreaking, to watch Hushpuppy manage her feelings about having no mother, being left to her own devices for long stretches in what could most aptly be described as a wilderness, and coping with that environment with wide-eyed innocence and the imagination of a child just beginning to grasp a bigger sense of the world. Scenes between her and her father are one part moving and one part harrowing, as his parenting style at times seems sink or swim.
Adding to the rare nature of the movie is that it’s told from the perspective of this little girl. It taints the emotional understanding of adult matters and provides a framework to see things in an entirely different light than what one might expect. There’s an almost magical realism to certain events as Hushpuppy still has that childlike wonder but is on the verge of hitting the age of reason. Clearly, not everything she perceives as real is actually happening but there’s an innate truth to the emotion being exhibited.
All of this gushing isn’t to say things are perfect. The heavy-handedness of the global warming message feels a bit disjointed from the rest of the story, especially when showing stock footage of glaciers breaking apart. Also, to no great surprise in a project of this nature, the pacing is often very slow and feels like the filmmakers were stretching to ensure the movie was an acceptable feature length (if you are so inclined, you can also watch Zeitlin’s short film Glory at Sea which is a precursor to the feature).
However, if you want to experience a film with the most unique perspective of the year, look no further than Beasts of the Southern Wild. There’s a freshness to the project that is invigorating and the actors deliver performances that feel real, probably due to not having the trained acting tricks many of us have become so used to seeing. There’s no surprise this has been wowing the festival circuit; and although most independent films work just as fine, if not better, in the home market, there’s something to being in a dark theater with a large screen that very much helps this experience. Keep that in mind if this film has been/is now on your radar and remember that amidst all the summer blockbusters, this won’t likely be in theaters too long in your area so plan accordingly.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is rated PG-13 for thematic material including child imperilment, some disturbing images, language and brief sensuality.