Director: Benh Zeitilin
Starring: Quvenzhane Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly, Gina Montana.
Written by Benh Zeitilin and (also based on her play Juicy and Delicious) Lucy Alibar
Running Time: 93 mins
Release date: 19th October 2012
Having been playing the festival circuits for quite a while now, Beasts of the Southern Wild finally arrives here under a plaudits of adulation from all who have seen it. A low budget, mystical tale filmed in 16mm, would it live up to the hail of critical praise that has been heaped upon it? Absolutely.
Set on a nondescript island nicknamed The Bathtub, six year old Hushpuppy lives with her temperamental father, Wink. The island is slowly sinking and with the melting of the ice caps, it won’t be long until the whole place is under water. Using tough love, Wink tries to guide Hushpuppy to surviving the world without him. Her mother mysteriously disappeared, Hush puppy believing that she just swam away, Wink is dying from some unknown disease and with the icebergs melting, they are releasing strange, giant hog-like creatures called Aurochs, Hush puppy has only one options left and that is to find her mother.
Seen from the eyes of an innocent child, this is a film that manages to mix the mystical with the real. Comparisons with the victims of Hurricane Katrina are almost impossible, as we witness the determination of a handful of stubborn home-owners refusing to leave their beloved homes, ransacked as they are, even when the authorities come to remove them. So having to watch this from eyes that certainly don’t deserve to see or even live in such squalor is somewhat disturbing. On the other hand, this same innocent sees things very differently and this is the triumph of the piece. With these mythical creatures heading towards their home, a constant threat looming over them, Hushpuppy has to be strong and stand up for herself, even if she is small and meek.
Director Benh Zeitilin makes the wise decision of filming with a handheld camera and in 16mm. The grainy stock of the film, along with the shakes and unsteady camera work gives the land and almost surreal feel. It’s also a wise decision to use locals instead of trained actors to play the inhabitants of the Bathtub and he has two outstanding performances from the film’s leads.
As Wink, Hushpuppy’s somewhat volatile father, Dwight Henry, a cafe owner from New Orleans, who initially refused to do the film because he was too busy, gives an extremely unsympathetic sympathetic performance. His approach to the youngster is sometimes shocking and yet you can see why he treats her the way he does, to prepare her for the worse. He is consistently believable throughout and even though you might hate him at times, you can’t help but side with him.
The real revelation is the stunningly good Quvenzhane Wallis. At six years old, she gives a performance that any real actor would almost die to play. Holding the film almost single-handedly, she commands each and every scene as we follow her extraordinary journey from child to maturity. We feel her pain, her anguish, her confusion. She is never anything less than brilliant and I can see a very bright future for her.
Some may find this an uneven trip but that helps with capturing the atmosphere and feel of a film that playfully jumps from real to surreal. It does have its flaws, some scenes do place out a little too long but on the whole it’s a stunning achievement that works on so many levels. And as for Wallis, a star is born. In the end, it’s a tale about Hushpuppy and her daddy wanting to live in the Bathtub.