I've never seen a film like Beasts of the Southern Wild before. That, alone, isn't what makes it great of course. That, mostly, is what makes it most difficult to write about. But it's probably the first thing you should know about it before you go see it. And if you can see it while it's in the theaters, you should.
Part of the reason I'd never seen anything like Beasts of the Southern Wild before is because almost everyone involved is a newcomer. Who'd ever seen anything like a Wes Anderson film before Bottle Rocket, after all? Director and co-writer Benh Zeitlin has exactly one feature-length credit -- this film -- to his name. The two principal stars, Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry don't even have Wikipedia pages -- Wallis because she was six years old when the film was shot and Henry because he's not an actor at all, but rather coincidentally happened to work in a bakery across the street from the movie's casting agency.
Certainly, my unfamiliarity with this trio enhanced the magical, never-seen-anything-like-this-before feeling that washed over me in the theater, but this isn't merely some flavor-of-the-week curiosity.
The tale of Beasts of the Southern Wild evokes Toni Morrison or, I suspect, having not been exposed to enough of his work, William Faulkner, only there is beautifully framed shot upon beautifully framed shot and a haunting unforgettable score go with it. Wallis plays Hushpuppy, a six-year-old girl who resides in the extreme poverty of The Bathtub with her father Wink, played by Henry. Hushpuppy's extreme poverty would feel shocking and downright depressing if it weren't for two factors:
- Poverty is the norm in The Bathtub, a fictional coastal community located on the other side of the levees that create Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans -- the ones that became so famous during Hurricane Katrina -- and so Hushpuppy doesn't seem meant to be pitied.
- Hushpuppy's destitution doesn't seem to bother her in the least nor does it seem to have a terribly adverse effect on her life most of the time. She laughs and daydreams like any other six-year-old girl, gets Bathtub-style education from Miss Bathsheba (Gina Montana) and dines on the type of Gulf fare that would make for an expensive night out at a New Orleans-style restaurant where I live.
Life isn't perfect for Hushpuppy, though. Her father -- with her mother out of the picture, the sole provider for her and someone with whom she has an exceedingly complex relationship -- is gravely ill. Unwilling to desert The Bathtub, he isn't able to get the type of medical care he needs. Early on in the film, The Bathtub falls victim to a nasty storm that decimates the community as she knows it. Most puzzling of all, the melting ice caps have freed four aurochs -- a now-extinct, oversized ancestor of modern cattle, says Wikipedia -- and they are heading straight for her.
Were there no score and no matter-of-fact narration from Hushpuppy, this would be purely post-apocalyptic stuff, what with the torrential rains and the bleak squalor. But there she is, paired with folksy and dramatic music from Zeitlin and Dan Romer, filtering this desolate world through her determined and cheerful eyes, telling us "everybody loses the thing that made them. The brave men stay and watch it happen. They don't run."
Wallis' performance is one of the best that I can remember by a child actor in a good long while. Her presence is commanding, and also critical to making the film work.
There are more than a few underlying meanings to be found in Beasts of the Southern Wild if you're so inclined. Certainly you can see it as an allegory about climate change and/or the isolation felt by the people of this region in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Indeed, part of me kept expecting for this exact sort of "payoff," for lack of a better word, as the aurochs closed in on Hushpuppy.
I'm glad, in retrospect, that it never came. Beasts of the Southern Wild may invite people to see it as some sort of political statement, but ultimately it's about child-like wonder and the ultimate responsibility a parent owes to his or her child. That, to me at least, seems much more important than a more temporal message about these wild and crazy days we're all living through. It wouldn't have been possible without Wallis, who executed brilliantly upon Zeitlin's intention to truly bring this world to life through the eyes of a child. And what a breath of fresh air it all is -- to ambitiously tackle an unknown, unseen world from a perspective rarely taken by other filmmakers.
At least as far as movies go, the future seems uncertain for the creative trio that drove this wonderful vehicle. Henry is on record as saying he has no interest in an acting career. Wallis could probably have her pick of roles if that's what she, and her family, want for her. Zeitlin, meanwhile, would seem to be a rising star. But read a little about him and the "Court 13" collective that brought Beasts to us, and you might start to wonder if using this wonderful film as a stepping stone to directing the latest watered-down comic book adaptation is really what he wants out of life.
I hope we'll see more out of them all because anyone that plays a part in something this special should get to keep trying to do other special things in perpetuity ... if that's what they want, of course.