Review: BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
It seems to be a pretty dry year for genre films. Sure, we’ve had the biggies like THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, PROMETHEUS, THE AVENGERS, etc. and a couple sleepers such as CABIN IN THE WOODS, but I’m speaking about genre films of the indie variety. For people who don’t always want to venture out to the theater and have their faces smashed into a bucket of popcorn with alien invasion and superhero epics, it has been kind of a boring year. We haven’t gotten a whole lot of truly exciting and original indie and foreign science fiction and horror films so far this year. There hasn’t been another MONSTERS or TROLLHUNTER yet. That is, until now. Behn Zeitlin’s directorial debut, BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD is exactly the kind of film I was waiting to discover this year.
The film chronicles the journey of a young girl named Hushpuppy (played by Quvenzhané Wallis), who lives in a fictional southern bayou community known as “the Bathtub.” The Bathtub is located on a small part of land surrounded by rising waters after a previous natural disaster. Recent natural disasters have also unfrozen giant, prehistoric cow-like creatures called Aurochs, who are making their way towards the Bathtub. Although it is said in the film that this is related to the melting of the polar ice caps, the community and their treatment from the outside world is a clear stand-in for the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The area has been cut off from its surroundings and residents have had to take shelter in small shanty houses. When outsiders do come in, it is only to take the residents to refugee camps or hospitals. But the people of the Bathtub simply have too much pride to be forced from their homeland, so any interference is unwelcome. Hushpuppy’s mother died shortly after she was born, so she is raised in these extreme conditions by her father, Wink (Dwight Henry). When Wink contracts a deadly disease and the Bathtub is flooded, Hushpuppy is forced to learn harsh lessons about survival, humanity, and independence.
That is about as detailed a synopsis as I feel comfortable writing. This film is told entirely from the point of view of the young Hushpuppy and it is best enjoyed when the audience is there every step of the way, taking the journey with her. In a lot of ways, this film reminded me of Studio Ghibli’s 1988 masterwork, GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES. Although BEASTS isn’t nearly as bleak, both films force the audience to follow two characters that are simply trying to survive on their own in a world that seems determined to wipe them out.
People could argue that BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD is only a genre film in the barest sense, which isn’t necessarily untrue. It is certainly not a monster movie, as the giant aurochs have extremely little screen time, and are really there for thematic reasons rather than story reasons. So my fellow kaiju lovers may want to look elsewhere for the hottest new giant monster movie. But for those want to watch a wonderful humanist fantasy film, this is exactly what they’re looking for. Even with little giant monster action, the film’s genre ties are strong, as it presents us with the same type of “what if” scenario as many sci-fi films of the disaster variety have in the past. The film is certainly driven more by its characters than by its sci-fi leanings, but people would be doing themselves (and the film) a great disservice to frown upon that. With so many huge, loud sci-fi/disaster spectacles out there, something more humanistic and grounded is a welcome breath of fresh air, especially in the middle of a summer full of giant Hollywood blockbusters.
One simply cannot review this film without talking about the actors. Everybody in the cast (mostly unknown and first time actors) brings their A-game to this film. Dwight Henry (in his first feature role) gives a heart wrenching performance as the cantankerous, yet loving father, and the supporting cast all fill their roles very well. But the true revelation of the film is eight-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis’ performance as Hushpuppy (Wallis was actually six at the time of filming). This is hands-down one of the best performances I’ve ever seen from a child actor. Not only that, it might be the best performance I’ve seen in any film that came out this year. Her chemistry with Dwight Henry gives the characters a realistic relationship and you feel every single thing that they’re put through. Wallis’ performance captures the behavior and mind of a child better than anything I’ve seen in recent memory. If she doesn’t get an Oscar nomination, something is seriously wrong over at the Academy. The fact that director Benh Zeitlin didn’t view any dailies until after the film wrapped makes the performances and his direction all the more impressive. Zeitlin’s steady direction brings out the best in his entire cast. He was also able to coax a lot of subtlety out of the excellent script (which he co-wrote with Lucy Alibar, based on Alibar’s one act play “Juicy and Delicious”).
Speaking of Zeitlin, we should probably talk about the look of the film. The film’s budget is reportedly around $1.8 million, but one would never guess by watching it. It is simply gorgeous to look at, with some stunning imagery that will last with the viewer long afterwards. He doesn’t rely on gimmicks or flashy cinematography, but good composition and fantastic use of natural lighting.
Also on the subject of imagery, the film boasts some fantastic special effects. The aurochs are brought to life via the age-old method of simply dressing up real animals as fantastic creatures (think THE KILLER SHREWS or the 1960 remake of THE LOST WORLD). In this case, horns and fur were put on what appears to be several boars, which were then superimposed into the film and made to look gigantic. I thought the effect was rather seamless and I even heard several people after the movie wondering how they “made” the monsters. It was actually interesting to see such an old method being used in a new film.
I really can’t find anything to complain about with this movie. It was exactly the kind of film I wanted to see right now and I couldn’t be happier that I did. It is simply an amazing display of talent from a new director and amazing new actors, who will hopefully go on to do more great work. It isn’t a monster movie or a giant disaster epic, but it is a fantasy film that should entertain those looking for a breather from the loud blockbuster movie season.
Oprah Winfrey recently had Dwight Henry, Quvenzhané Wallis, and Benh Zeitlin on her SUPER SOUL SUNDAY program. She contacted them after watching the film under President Barack Obama’s recommendation. This, combined with some early Oscar buzz lead me to think that the film will be getting some much deserved exposure in the coming months. Keep your eyes on your local listings to see if it is playing near you. If it is, I suggest you run (don’t walk) to the theater and check it out!