"Strong animals know when your heart is weak, it makes them hungry, and they start coming."
I’ll just start by saying that “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is, without question, the most startling, moving, daring, original film I’ve seen all year. When it captured the attention of the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, the internet lit up with gushing reviews for this film and promised a magical adventure unlike anything seen in a long while. It’s always a relief when something this hyped actually exceeds your expectations.
The thread holding everything together is the tale of six year old Hushpuppy and her force-of-nature father, Wink. They live on a island off the coast of Louisiana called The Bathtub. It’s a tight knit community that watches out for each other and lives life according to their own rules. When a storm devastates the island and well meaning rescue teams threaten to tear apart the already fragile community, Hushpuppy and her father are forced to confront their most personal demons and embrace the difficult revelations about their own futures.
If all that sounds conventional, I understand. Who hasn’t seen this story before, right? Hold on. What makes this film so engaging is the unique way the filmmakers have chosen to tell their tale.
Example: A lot of films, in order to heighten the sense of reality, are shot in “documentary style”. This usually involves handheld cameras and “available lighting”, but still tends to look staged. “The Hunger Games” made use of this technique during the first half of the film. In “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, the effect is reinvented with stunning results. You feel as if you are really there, living on The Bathtub with the rest of the inhabitants. Nothing feels false, staged, planned or scripted. The excellent cinematography and inspired editing foster a raw, earthy, gritty, wholly organic feeling that transports you to this world, and drops you right in the thick, wet, mud encrusted middle of it all. Bring a sweater.
Before I go much further, I should point out that I’ve been a father myself for four and a half years now, and it’s deeply changed the way I view media and the world at large around me. Films with children at the core of a struggle, or, even worse, films with children in jeopardy as a means of pushing forward the plot do little for me. That said, I think it’s also a HUGE risk to center the emotional core of your film around a six year old. Most of them can’t act, even fewer are anywhere near mature enough to understand the complexities of the emotions the script needs them to emote.
All of this gets tossed right out the window when you witness the performance of now eight year old Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy. Quvenzhané brings a fierce, ferocious energy to the screen and you can’t take your eyes off her for a second. She’s a powder keg waiting to explode and, at some points in the film, does. But she also has the grounding to suddenly be as tender, sweet and moving as any actress working today. You. Will. Be. Stunned.
I kept thinking about Jean-Pierre Leaud in “The 400 Blows”, Jodie Foster in “Taxi Driver”, and Anna Paquin in “The Piano”. Quvenzhané Wallis’ performance in this film will take it’s place among them.
This is not a film for everyone. It was adapted from a stage play, which, full disclosure, I usually hate, and it presents a raw, uncompromising look at poverty, destruction, and death. It’s also a film about joy, life and discovery.
I highly recommend "Beasts of the Southern Wild." Highly. It’s a film that will reward you for seeking it out.