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Nature films are a tough sell—often they are gorgeous and vast but suffer from staggering pretension that crushes any and all hope for character development and story. Think of nearly every Terrence Malick film ever made and you get the idea. With Beasts of the Southern Wild, we are treated to the wonders of nature (sans pretension) while following the story of a truly compelling father/daughter relationship.
The story centers on Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a 9-year-old girl who lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in “The Bathtub,” a derelict, Southern bayou community described as existing on the edge of the world. As precocious as she is curious, Hushpuppy spends her days exploring, gathering and listening to the heartbeats of any animal she can all under Wink’s (harsh) eye. When one of Wink’s outbursts go too far, a shift in the global climate occurs, bringing a massive storm to wipe out the Bathtub and releasing ancient beasts called “aurochs” from frozen sleep. With the waters rising, the aurochs on the warpath and Wink’s health failing, Hushpuppy must band together with the last of her community to survive the shifting landscape.
“Southern Wild” is a different kind of beast (haha) in how it manages to invoke differing genres seamlessly. It’s a drama between Hushpuppy and Wink, a fantasy film given the nature of the storm and the aurochs mythology, an apocalypse film, a coming-of-age story, a dark comedy and a redemptive journey. It balances all of these themes and threads without being crushed under its own, lean weight. Some could be confused by the overlapping themes, but it seems more like writer/director Benh Zeitlin wants you to take away your own themes from the story.
What makes the film even more remarkable is that it is a first time effort for many, if not most of its players, notably leading lady Wallis. Child actors oftentimes are a big gamble, even more so when they are the lead character of a film, but Wallis knocks one out of the park as Hushpuppy. She has all of the natural traits we’d expect from a 9-year old (curiosity and a knack for getting into trouble) while projecting insight, resourcefulness and bravery far beyond her years. It’s difficult to say she is acting; she inhabits Hushpuppy and her entire world, with little fear and great strength. We never leave her as the entire film is shot predominately from her level, putting us in her frame of mind constantly. The world through Hushpuppy’s eyes is stunning, if a little much to take in at one time.
Henry as Wink is also worth praising, having to balance a fine line between genuine love for his daughter and tough (almost abusive) treatment of her so that she may survive on her own. There are several scenes shared between Hushpuppy and Wink that seem almost improvised in their authenticity and pain. As neither actor had ever acted before, it’s remarkable to see such a debut.
Beautiful performances are only bolstered by the remarkable attention to cinematopgrahy. To say the film is gorgeous is a gross understatement. Nearly every frame of “Southern Wild” is crafted with such delicacy as to warrant calling the film a moving photography exhibit. From the opening party (easily one of the most gorgeous sequences) to the decaying animal carcasses to the inner workings of an islanded brothel, everything within the movie feels vibrant, natural and alive.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is far from an easy watch due to its scattershot pacing and little to no exposition (it just won’t explain itself — deal with it), but it excels as a sensory masterpiece bolstered by a remarkable lead performance while dripping with imagery frame after gorgeous frame. It may not entertain, but it does capture a remarkable vision of life, loss and strength.