Directed by Benh Zeitlin
Written by Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin
Fair warning: Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of those movies that’s not going to leave you. You’ll walk out of the theater, laid low by its forthright and fully earned emotion, but its apocalyptic yet hopeful tone, suffused with ethereal beauty, is going to burrow into your subconscious. Films like Beasts of the Southern Wild, the ones that stay present in our thoughts days or weeks after we see them, may not have a major conceptual hook, nor are they defined by a memorable twist. They just stay with us, not content to fade away. Beasts of the Southern Wild, directed by first-timer Benh Zeitlin (who co-wrote it with Lucy Alibar, adapted from a one-act play she wrote), is a singular, deftly emotional, and humane story of family uniting in the face of life-changing adversity.
Our guide into the film’s strange, mystical world is Hushpuppy, a six-year old girl who lives in the Bathtub, a close-knit and barely civilized community all by its lonesome in the Southern Delta of Louisiana. Hushpuppy lives in her own house—a trailer raised on a ramshackle platform—next to one where her father, Wink, resides. Like most children, Hushpuppy has a vivid imagination, which is inflamed after Wink gets mysteriously ill right as a massive storm hits the Bathtub. Soon, she believes a group of fierce, pig-like creatures called aurochs is heading for her and her father to bring about the end of their existence, so she prepares to take on the aurochs and any others who would unseat her and Wink from their home.
It’s impressive that in a mere 91 minutes, Beasts of the Southern Wild creates a fully formed world unlike anything we’ve ever seen. From images of decrepit housing to an unearthly vision of the forest surrounding the Bathtub, the film’s whole look is arresting. Cinematographer Ben Richardson does an excellent job of always keeping the camera moving, roving through the Bathtub. Hand-held camerawork is often a crutch modern directors use to lazily evoke immediacy. Here, it fits; Zeitlin is such a capable director that the cinema-verité style immerses the audience into the world even more. Richardson and Zeitlin also pull the old—and still effective—trick Steven Spielberg employed in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, keeping the camera on the same level as the tiny Hushpuppy, letting us see the world through her eyes. Zeitlin’s also responsible, along with Dan Romer, for the moving and haunting score, which emphasizes the splendor and fear inherent in the story.
But the film’s anchor, with a nearly impossible burden on her shoulders, is Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy. Wallis may not be trained, but her performance packs a wallop. Though some of the narration may come off as stilted, Wallis fully embodies Hushpuppy from her first scene. The script asks a lot of her, but she never once wavers. Even in a particularly big moment at the climax, one that could be a roadblock for other young actors, Wallis is pitch-perfect. She’s matched by another newcomer, Dwight Henry as Wink, a gruff, often childish man whose immaturity wouldn’t garner him any Father of the Year Awards. Henry and Wallis don’t have a typical father-daughter chemistry, but their bond is pure and believable.
Their connection is what makes Beasts of the Southern Wild so heart-wrenching without ever feeling shameless. Watching two almost outrageously stoic people struggle against odds that, even in a slightly skewed and fantastical film as this, seem insurmountable is painful enough to watch. However, Henry and Wallis are so talented at conveying a range of emotions without uttering a word. The looks they give each other, the emotion emanating from each glance, speak volumes. You may not cry at Beasts of the Southern Wild; however, if you don’t get a twinge of sadness at Hushpuppy and Wink’s plight, you may need to double-check about that heart of yours and see if it’s still working.
Movies that wash over you like this aren’t easy to explain. The magic of Beasts of the Southern Wild isn’t in a plot that can be described in a sentence or phrase. The magic of this film is in its wondrous imagery, of a girl holding fireworks in both hands and running through the forest as if time can freeze the moment forever. The magic is in a relationship that manages to be relatable and unstable at the same time, rooted in love and protection. The magic is in creating a world that seems foreign, exotic, and dangerous, a place we may not want to stay in forever, but one we’re glad we visited. Beasts of the Southern Wild is outlandish, it’s hopeful, it’s defiant, and it’s one of the best films of the year. Go see it.
– Josh Spiegel