Beasts of the Southern Wild arrives on a wave of strong US critical approval and amid intense Oscar buzz. This can often-times be indicative of the type of movie that hard-core cinephiles will love but that mainstream audiences may find tedious, pretentious or overwrought. So the question remains, is Beasts of the Southern Wild all it’s hyped up to be?
Beasts of the Southern Wild is set deep in the Louisiana bayou, in a community separated from the mainland by a levee designed to keep New Orleans free from flooding. The locals have taken to calling their home “The Bathtub”, and it is here that we find Hushpuppy and her daddy. A six-year-old with a fantastical imagination Hushpuppy loves her community, the rusted metal, scavenged wooden planks, and bonhomie providing comfort, familiarity and shelter. When a fierce storm ravages the community this little girl is faced with a whole new set of challenges she never expected.
Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy and Dwight Henry as her father Wink are absolute revelations. They transcend the fact that they had never made a film before with raw, naturalistic performances. Wallis is particular lights up the screen. Her smile and energy are infectious and her interactions with Henry and the rest of her community are real and true. Henry gives a great portrayal of an emotionally detached father, not because he’s a bastard, but because that’s what he feels is the best way to make Hushpuppy strong. His character is very wrong in this regard but Henry plays it so well that it almost starts to make sense. There’s a nobility to his actions, or at least an attempt to be noble and his love for his community is absolute. The supporting cast is mish-mash of southern staples, some serious, some funny, some crazy, but all lending to the sense of community and acting as strong foil to the central duo.
Director Benh Zeitlin does extraordinary work on a small budget. The cinematography is really special, grounding the cast and audience in a very deep portrayal of life beyond the flood barriers in the Deep South. Because of this the emotional heft that the film wields was all the more powerful. Casting locals rather than actors gives the dialogue a true ring, and while some of the phrases and slang is lost that is not an issue. The fantasy sequences are spectacular, although some of these and occasionally shaky camera-work can jar, to the point of reminding an audience that this not real. Thankfully that feeling does not last long and the audience is soon reinvested with Hushpuppy and The Bathtub. The score is superb too, full of life, vibrancy and energy. It’s ominous when it needs to be and joyful at exactly the right points. Even the narration, which can often ruin a film, works.
Overall Beasts of the Southern Wild is a truly marvellous film, one with a childlike sense of wonder that will find a home in all who see it.