Review: 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' is Powerful Real World Fantasy
by Jeremy Kirk
July 16, 2012
The visionaries of the directing world, those filmmakers who craft stories of grand proportion, find ways to work around budget. Some build more epic than even the latest $100-million blockbuster. Beasts of the Southern Wild, first feature from emerging director Benh Zeitlin, is a remarkable depiction of a young girl's strength deep in the heart of a world she, and, to an extent, we, don't fully understand, a deep-South world of monsters and rivers, told through the temporal haze of the Delta community in which it takes place. It loses its grip now and again, but the memorable side of the film latches hold and stays with you.
At the center of Zeitlin's film, which he co-wrote with Lucy Alibar, is Hushpuppy, a six-year-old girl living with her father, Wink, among the trees of the bayou. Their homes, for Hushpuppy and her father each have their house with the girl's father calling to her when it's time to eat, rest in what Hushpuppy believes to be the bottom of the world, a small patch of land known as The Bathtub that only seems to clink onto the dry land for fear of floating out to sea. When Wink grows sick, the young girl realizes it's time for her to grow up, learn how to fend for herself, and prepare for the coming end of the world when giant, prehistoric beasts rise up and take their world back.
Zeitlin and Alibar do a magnificent job working with Hushpuppy's knowledge of the world. It's all we see in the film, and understanding how this young girls looks at her world creates a fantastic allure to this actual world. She pieces things together, learning from her teachers, friends, and father, who she believes is a great leader of his people and whose role she knows she will one day be forced to take over. In a number of senses, Beasts of the Southern Wild is as epic a tale as one about superheroes defending cities or kings doing battle for thrones. Zeitlin occasionally takes us back to a charging horde of aurochs, an extinct ancestor to the wild boar, massive, terrifying creatures who Hushpuppy believes have broken free from icy tombs. She thinks her world and the world of her friends and family will soon be taken over by these beasts, and the audience's knowledge that this isn't the case doesn't deter us from feeling the girl's fear.
It's in Zeitlin's way of handling the character. He makes us understand this girl and the relationship she has with her father. When Wink, played solidly by Dwight Henry, tells Hushpuppy and the other patrons of a local bar that he's "got this," there's a sincerity in it. Hushpuppy recognizes it, so we do, as well. Later, when real elements of the world begin to trickle down into The Bathtub, when things like hurricanes and broken levies, sickness and loss, begin to play out, Wink's words don't seem to have as much of a meaning. You notice when Hushpuppy begins to lose faith in him.
The up-and-down struggles of this girl and her father also begin to be broken up by a meandering sense of filler. Much of the middle section in Beasts of the Southern Wild is spent on the waters rising and the father and daughter dealing with the elements. Zeitlin and Alibar's screenplay doesn't have as much to do with for the secondary characters, most of whom are acceptable in their eccentricities, but none who are really unforgettable. The film has a hard time getting into its third act, when Hushpuppy learns more and more about the world further North and about her long-lost mother who the girl sees as a shining light off in the distance across the sea. Once it does, though, it's magnificence returns along with heavy and genuine emotion. It gets dusty in the theater during some of those later moments.
You can thank Quvenzhané Wallis, who plays Hushpuppy, and the way Zeitlin handles the young actress for much of that. Wallis brings a genuineness to the character, an innocence in her eyes that's called for here. You never get the sense that Wallis is trying, playing a part that doesn't fit her. It's been said time and time again that the best child actors don't act like child actors, they act like children. It's been said so much, because it's so true, and Zeitlin understands this way of bringing honesty to his child character. But it isn't until late in Beasts of the Southern Wild, when Hushpuppy begins finding her strength and learning how this world works, that Wallis' true talent shines through. She screams with the ferocity of a wild animal, and even though it's clearly a child's scream, the anger and determination being pushed through with it is undeniable. Wallis is the perfect core to the center of this story.
Many independent filmmakers attempt this level of the fantastic peppered into a real world. Wes Anderson pushes the vibrancy. Terry Gilliam plops a fantastic world on top of a real one without anyone being able to question it. With Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin has created a world that's only fantastic in the way its child protagonist understands it. Though much of that understanding comes from far-fetched tales of her mother and exaggerations of her father's standing in the world, the heart that comes from Hushpuppy is a very real emotion, an honest growth in this film's main character. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a film about finding ones strength so that when the beasts of the world, whether real or fantastic, step in to take over, your world won't end without a fight.
Jeremy's Rating: 8.5 out of 10