Movie Review: “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (dir., Benh Zeitlin, 2012)

by Tim Gunn

Four Disclaimers: One, I put off seeing this movie for quite some time. It was well worth the wait. Two, this is not a film that’s going to appeal to audiences who like more mainstream films, yet it has a fierce heart and thick skin. Three, I’m glad this film received some recent major recognition in the form of Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress. If there’s a movie I’m going to be rooting for on Oscar night, it will be this one. Four, I do not think I could survive long in the stark world this film depicts. Which makes me sad, for it is quite beautiful to behold.

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Benh Zeitlin’s directorial debut, Beasts of the Southern Wild, is a spellbinding film that will haunt you long after you see it. Part allegory, part coming-of-age story, the movie rewards patience, analysis, and flexible points-of-view. You can see the skeleton of the flood myth, which many cultures and world religions share, fusing its DNA with a near post-apocalyptic vision of life in the era of man-made global climate change. In the young character of Hushpuppy, one can trace the fine American tradition of heroic child characters who are forced to grow up early, from Huck Finn to Scout Finch to Natty Gann to Elliott (from ET). 

The film takes place in The Bathtub, a series of island communities that lie outside the protective insulation of the levees of New Orleans. Here we find a tight-knit community of people, fiercely protective of their hard-drinking, truth-telling, wild partying, and sensual singing, as well as the ramshackle quality of their improvised homes. In the film’s dazzling opening sequence, there is a distinct lyricism and imagistic poetry to everything in the frame, from lush vegetation to the chaotic tangle of Hushpuppy’s hair to an insane fireworks display. 

For a while, the film is content to track the life of Hushpuppy as she goes to a local “school,” rides around with her daddy, named Wink, on their boat, made from the back of a pickup truck, and visit the locals. Then one day, Hushpuppy returns from school only to  find her daddy missing. When he returns, we uncover that he is just back from a hospital, and may in fact be dying. That Hushpuppy has already lost her mother only sets the stakes higher for the viewer, confronted as they are with such a startling mature and organic performance from the miraculous Quvenzhane Wallis. 

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Wink seems to understand that his time on the earth is coming to an end. The film takes a stark approach to the idea of the circle of life and the natural order of things. Wink is uncompromising - he rejects modern life and its conveniences, including medical procedures that could save his life. So, with the clock ticking, he must teach his young daughter how to survive on her own. 

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On top of Wink’s hard luck, a storm is coming. A big one. Some folks in The Bathtub want to get out before they’re all swept away. Hushpuppy and Wink, along with a handful of  other locals, plan to stay and ride it out. And so they do. But after surviving the storm, will the water go down so that life can return to normal? In a whimsical touch, Hushpuppy learns at school about Auruchs, mythical beasts trapped in the Antarctic Ice, but who she imagines have been set free to come and destroy the residents of The Bathtub, once and for all. These Auruchs are brought to life through some uncanny digital wizardry, especially considering the tiny $1.8 million budget. They look like giant boars, but there’s something pre-historic about them as well. 

Standing tall in the face of it all is Hushpuppy. What a fierce, mesmerizing performance by Wallis, who was six years old when filming first took place! It is impossible to take your eyes off her throughout the entire film. With her tiny mouth, always formed in a brave, defiant sneer, not even Auruchs can rise up against her strength of will. Dwight Henry, who plays the father, Wink, is a local non-actor, and he brings power and integrity to the role. 

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The Bathtub is a world I could never live in for long. I would run back to civilization at the first chance. But, throughout the movie, I developed an appreciation and empathy for the people who live there, and would only wish for them to be able to return and live life on their own terms. The movie is devastating to watch, and yet brimming with hope. 

This is a difficult film to explain. I can’t tell you exactly why I found it so charming. I cannot explain the beauty of the performances. I cannot relate how fitting the soundtrack is, or why the handheld shots are perfectly integrated into a story of a place that is at the mercy of the tides. There is so much beauty and wonder to behold in every frame, yet I would be hard-pressed to say that a lot happens, that there is a specific plot to follow. Much of the movie is slow and glacially paced, yet I was never bored. This is a movie that high schoolers should get a chance to see. 

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Beasts of the Southern Wild would make a great double-feature with Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Both employ voice-over narration, lyrically composed and edited shots, and spellbinding, naturalistic performances by actors where the line between what is acting and what is simply being in the moment are difficult to delineate. 

It is not, however, difficult for me to endorse this film, one of the best of a bumper crop of films in 2012. If you haven’t seen it, but have the time, give it a rent or find some way to see this film. Like me, you might end up finding it difficult to root for any other movie come Oscar night.