FIlm Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild

jason stives in beast mode…

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Tucked away in tonight’s Oscar nominees is a film that not many have probably heard of. Actually, for some moviegoers that may be several films in the Best Picture category, but there is one that stands above it all. It’s a film by no one you ever heard of starring complete unknowns but one that really grabs at the imagination and blurs that perfect surreal line that the best kinds of movies tend to do. Beasts of the Southern Wild, the directorial debut of Benh Zeitlin, isn’t for everyone and for some the need to grab at an underlying theme and social commentary may frustrate a person enough to move away from this picture or maybe you just don’t like child actors and that’s understandable at times. However the amount of heart that goes into this film took me truly by surprise and while it will probably not pick up any major awards it certainly deserved the be here.

Beasts tells the story of Hushpuppy, an 8-year-old girl living in the Bathtub, a lone island off the coast of the Louisiana Bayou that has been devastated by some unknown natural disaster. The inhabitants of the Bathtub are a close knit community that struggle to survive by any means they can which include breaking down old cars for shelter and transportation through the flooded and murky land. Hushpuppy believes something else is coming, another event that will once again damage the Earth and bring about strange boar like beasts to the land called Aurochs. While wrestling with an active imagination as means to survive she lives with Wink (Dwight Henry), her devoted yet sometimes malicious father who enact tough love as means of teaching her to survive on her own when he is no longer around.

Child actors tend to be on both sides of the line that runs with being just plain cute and actually showing some talent. In the past many have been honored at a very young age but it’s finding the balance that takes them out of just being a child on the big screen. Quvenzhane Wallis really sets herself apart from some child actors mainly because she plays Hushpuppy with a child’s understanding coupled with a tough exterior that is programmed to survive. A child’s imagination is a wonderful thing and Hushpuppy’s overactive mind, which makes you question the validity of some of her predictions, filters all of life’s events through a sense of wonder. When she burns down her home and tries to hide under a box from the flames she truly thinks it will keep her from the flames not realizing the actual harm. This to some may look like a foolish child with no formidable teaching but in the harsh world she lives in it’s her escape method while still being able to be tough assert herself in staying aware. She has no mother, a fact that deeply affects her when she meets a rather motherly figure at film’s end (it’s implied it could be her actual mother).

Dwight Henry gives a stirring and sometimes unsettling performance as Wink and for a man who has no interest in pursuing a full time acting career (he is in fact a baker in Louisiana) he really gives his all here by keeping Wink’s defenses up and showing very little compassion at times. When he does display it at the character’s most vulnerable and tragic moments it hurts the soul to watch and even I will admit to shedding a tear when the tough love meter between Wink and Hushpuppy registered at critical in the narrative. That sounds like an overly rot bit of Oscar bait but Father/daughter or father/son relationship stories tend to feel the most real when a real problem is jammed between their ability to grow. This is done through a man who is clearly unstable and deathly ill and his only way to keep his daughter from crying is by teaching her whatever means he can and to push her away from him. Even when they are working together, like when they decide to drain all the water from the levee to their island, he keeps a close eye on her only to swat away any love she can display towards him as a means of not getting too attached.

This all feeds into the harsh reality of the Bathtub population where people either expect very little to come to their lives or they find ways to celebrate and make the best of whatever resources they have. There is a lot that can be taken by the section of the film that deals with the Bathtub residents rejecting aide from the mainland and it harkens too close to the Ninth Ward residents of Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. These are forgotten souls who have made peace with their disconnect from the outside world and their stubbornness only comes at a cost of being uncomfortable with being assisted after surviving for so long without it. Is this political commentary being enacted? Who the hell knows. Some will see this as just that and combined with some of the more stereotypical character traits of people like Wink one could view the film’s depictions of life in the Bayou to be borderline insulting.

Beasts of the Southern Wild isn’t for everyone but you have to admire the charm that comes from mixing personal hardship with fantasy through the eyes of a broken child. The triumph of tragedy here is that it teaches people to be stronger at their most vulnerable and that comes at any age as we see through our two main characters. Their weakness is their strength because they won’t allow themselves to be beaten by life and for them that means ridding their lives of a truly personal relationship. That sounds cheerless at best but this isn’t the most typical film yet it reminded of classic films like Sunrise or Night of the Hunter; films that showcase an alarming reality with the magical backdrop of the cinema. Beasts of the Southern Wild reminds me greatly of a cinema classic but it it’s far more unique to be loved by all.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10 (Excellent)