Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
Directed by Benh Zeitlin
Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry
“Magical realism” is the perfect two words than can be used to describe this small film. But don’t let the untrained actors or the $1.8 million budget fool you, because this little film has an enormous amount of power and heart.
Set off the coast of Louisiana in a small, poor community that our protagonist and narrator calls “The Bathtub,” the people who make up the community live in shacks that are barely standing and spend the majority of their day drinking, eating, and taking care of one another. It’s a very close-knit group of survivors and it’s clear they don’t want any help from the “outsiders.”
Hushpuppy is the six-year-old girl whose eyes we see the film through. She lives with her dad, Wink, who is a tough, controlling man but also very protective of Hushpuppy. During a session at school, her teacher tells her about the myth of the Aurochs, which are giant horned beasts that are frozen in ice caps that are melting. Throughout the film we see a pack of Aurochs trekking through the lands.
The film takes an all-too familiar turn when a terrible storm hits, flooding the entire community and destroying everyone’s homes. Wink and Hushpuppy travel on their makeshift raft and spend the next few days with friends. There is something about a person’s home that you can never tear away from them, no matter how rough things get on the outside world. The people from The Bathtub display their passion for their lives and do everything they can to salvage what’s left of their community.
Dwight Henry is the man who plays Wink and gives a natural and genuine performance as a dad who is sick and tries to teach his daughter survival skills before he dies. But it’s Quvenzhane Wallis who gives a remarkable performance as the fearless child in a broken time. Her understanding of the world she lives in is just one of the many intriguing aspects about her character, Hushpuppy. She listens to the beating heart of animals and people, she lets out a high-pitch scream for her mother whom she’s constantly searching for, and she’s able to stare down the towering Aurochs. There is something majestic about Wallis’ performance and in the same light, the whole movie is majestic.
First time director Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar have constructed a film that provides a true experience of being surprised by the film, its filmmakers, and its actors. While Beasts of the Southern Wild isn’t heavy on plot, it sure is great in pulling us into the world of its characters with a dash of the child’s imagination. It’s rare to watch a film that deeply moves you from a story that is completely foreign and unique. From a year of real-life dramas and quick-paced thrillers, it’s refreshing that there is still magic where a small movie could sweep an audience from its feet into a standing ovation. This is that film.