Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) / Drama

MPAA rated: PG-13 for thematic material, child imperilment, some disturbing images, language and brief sensuality
Length: 93 min.

Cast: Quvenzhane Wallis, Dwight Henry, Gina Montana, Lowell Landes, Levy Easterly, Pamela Harper
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Screenplay: Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin (based on Lucy Alibar's play, "Juicy and Delicious")

Beasts of the Southern Wild 2012Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival, Beasts of the Southern Wild primarily follows the exploits of a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy, growing up in the squalor of the southern delta region of Louisiana with her alcoholic father, Wink.  Wink is ailing from a disease that is set to take his life one day soon, and with her mother out of the picture, he feels it is his need to instruct Hushpuppy on how to survive without him in this harsh and dreary world they call 'the Bathtub', dubbed as such because the entire region, stuck between the levees and the ocean, floods with water when it storms, and one day, with ice caps melting due to global warming, their home will likely be completely under water as the sea levels rise and the increasing forces of hurricanes wreak havoc to her close-knit but dwindling community. 

Certainly a film of a different type (though aspects of it remind me of David Gordon Green's George Washington), Benh Zeitlin's film, adapted with help from Lucy Alibar from her play, "Juicy and Delicious", spotlights a pocket of people that the rest of the world left behind, though they defiantly want no part of the rest of the world of 'ugliness' either.  Alibar's original play had been about an 11-year-old white deep southern Georgia boy and his father; this film changes so much about the piece, despite sharing a screenwriting credit with its author, that the two entities probably shouldn't be compared much more than as personal interest.  While the Terrebonne Parish of the film may play out more as myth than reality, due to the sometimes mythical themes of the film, this is something that works in its favor. 

Nevertheless, the fact that the film is written by white people not from the region has drawn its share of criticism (ironically, mostly by white critics, also not from the region, who feel the need to be offended on behalf of others who aren't necessarily offended), but I personally think much of this is a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to the colloquial nature and dialogue of the characters, and misses the point of the story entirely, because it isn't a film about being black or being from Louisiana necessarily.

Quvenzhane Wallis, in her first ever acting role at five years old when filming began, is remarkably authentic in her role as Hushpuppy.  Her demeanor while on camera is seamless, and never once does it appear that she is straining to emote.  It probably does help that the character of Hushpuppy is raised to resolutely show no weakness, with her father always imploring her never to cry, though that is often a struggle given her dire situation.  Even the voiceover narration by Hushpuppy over the film feels right, adding a sense of the spiritual and poetic to her premature journey into maturity, as she attempts to rationalize all of the lovely things that are disappearing around her. 

The same kudos go to Dwight Henry, who acted in the role while he ran his bakery in New Orleans, in his role as father Wink, also his first acting gig, as the often-drunk, stubborn, father that deals with his child in a way that many in the audience will find negligent and sometimes abusive.  Nevertheless, Wink does feel he operates out of a position of love, having to be tough on Hushpuppy because he knows it's going to be a tough world for an orphan living in an area of the country that is slowly dying itself.

There is an element of fantasy that permeates Beasts that gives what might be a simple story a surreal feeling, perhaps a more grounded version of Where the Wild Things Are, even tying in elements of Greek mythology toward the film's end as Hushpuppy begins to search for her long-lost mother (It is here that literal-minded viewers will probably lose hold of the film's intent).  There isn't a particular plot in mind at the heart of Zeitlin's film, but there is a consistency of tone and themes that run throughout.  The cinematography by Ben Richardson, especially for a low budget independent, is one of the feature's largest assets.  Remarkable that nearly every prominent cast and crew member of this film is working on their first theatrical feature.

It is a film told from the perspective and outlook of a child, hence the narrative, where fanciful things can and often do happen.  Though it's not in the literal sense, at that age, there is a fine line, like a metaphorical levee, between the reality and the belief that monsters exist (she imagines the long-extinct, cattle-like aurochs as resembling the boars she grew up with), magical things can happen if you believe, and the narcissistic belief that what you do in a small sense does have a great effect on those around you.  The world is too harsh not to paint walls of illusion around you to cope.  Beasts is certainly a reflection on that dreamlike but powerful innocence of youth.
Qwipster's rating:  

©2013 Vince Leo