Beasts of the Southern Wild (****)


The first major Academy Award™ contender is officially upon us with Benh Zeitlin’s hypnotically spellbinding Beasts of the Southern Wild. The hype for this film has been building following the huge responses it received from the Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals, so anything less than what we’ve heard to be true would be one massive letdown. I’m not one who buys into hype or goes into a film screening expecting certain emotions to be attained — I simply come at each film as if it’s one untouched, pure and innocent child that I see grow before my eyes. This is why I tend to avoid trailers and plot synopses before checking out a movie. For me, a film’s beauty lies in its organic unfolding, letting your eyes and your mind reap all that is streaming before you, completely unfiltered and without taint. I am very thankful I stuck to my guns before watching Beasts of the Southern Wild. The less you know, the greater you’ll appreciate. I’ll even take it a step further: this is one of those masterpieces that hits you so hard and so fast, it’s nearly impossible to control the urge to immediately re-watch the film. Brimming with speed, ferocity, and performances that will make your eyes turn into miniscule waterfalls, Beasts of the Southern Wild has the potential to take the globe by storm in the same all-encompassing manner as Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire. It’s just that powerful.

Tonally, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a cross between the adult-free world of Hook’s “The Lost Boys” and the island community of Danny Boyle’s The Beach. Just like in those two films, the people who reside in “The Bathtub” — an island directly south of New Orleans, Louisiana — find solace in a world that is often tough to survive in, but even harder to see destroyed. In “The Bathtub,” the community does at it pleases. They wine, curse, dance, party, and live entirely as one with nature. The American government has no immediate plans for the evacuation or eradication of this communal sanctuary. How can this be, you ask? Simple: it’s because they have no idea that the community of “The Bathtub” even exists. Via their motorboats, journeys are sometimes made by the community to get goods and supplies from the Louisiana mainland, mostly in secrecy and without notice. Beasts of the Southern Wild makes evident early on that there are distrustful feelings the community holds toward Louisiana. It isn’t made clear why those feelings reside, but I suspect either they lived in a state of poverty, felt a tightness around their neck from the government’s grasp, or just wanted to live a life without rules and consequences. Either way, their cessation from The United States is our gain. Beasts of the Southern Wild, through dense research and a cultural understanding of the bayou life in southern Louisiana, gives us a glimpse into a vicinity of America that looks as foreign as a Samoan jungle. It’s a film that makes us feel guilty, ignorant, and shamed all at once. A beautiful world and culture exists right under our noses, and only by the grace of Benh Zeitlin are we finally able to see it.

‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ contains one of the more complicated and fascinating father-daughter relationships in quite some time.

Our main eyes into this bayou-centric/nature-encompassed world of “The Bathtub” come from Hushpuppy, a six or seven year old girl who is as independent and wild as any young child you’ll ever see. Quvenzhané Wallis gives us a heck of a film debut with her role as the justifiably antagonistic Hushpuppy. She absolutely loves “The Bathtub” and sees it as her own brand of utopia, but the main ingredient missing is a mother who can love and care for her. Her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), is an emotional wreck of a man, abusive and guarded to no end. Dwight’s anger seems to stem from the burden of caring for Hushpuppy, although she hardly needs looking after. In the community of “The Bathtub,” children live in their own shacks, make their own food, and clean their own pots and pans. However, Hushpuppy is rebellious and curious by nature, which aggravates Wink to the point of unleashing a unspeakably monstrous side of himself upon Hushpuppy. It’s a testament to Zeitlin’s screenplay and the performance from Dwight Henry that Wink can still be seen in such a sympathetic light despite all his flaws and bouts of cruelty. The father-daughter relationship between Hushpuppy and Wink is one of the more complex familial schisms I’ve seen in a long time. There are so many attributes to describe this relationship, but the biggest one of all seems to always come back to “love.” The two have a hole in their heart since Hushpuppy’s supposed alcoholic mother walked out on Wink so long ago, leaving behind the “The Bathtub” and settling into the easy life on the Louisiana mainland. She has not been seen or heard from since Hushpuppy was a toddler, and this yearning for a maternal presence — from both Wink and Hushpuppy — is the unspoken anchor that threatens their co-existence. How they grapple with her absence and the consequences that result from it are fascinating to see unfold.

So the big question I’m sure everyone is asking is who exactly are the “Beasts of the Southern Wild”? Are they supernatural creatures that hide in the forests of the Louisiana Bayou, ready to strike at an opportune moment? Or are they just a metaphor for the community that lives in “The Bathtub”? Perhaps both? I will let you find out for yourself why Zeitlin’s high concept title is as such. Suffice it to say, this conundrum that rides parallel to the primary narrative comes full circle by the film’s end. You may not have all the answers you are expecting, but they certainly coalesce in a stunning and unforgettable way. I cannot wait for everyone to witness what I’m speaking about — the moment will have your jaw dislocated, at least in immediate response.

Could Quvenzhané Wallis be the youngest “Best Actress” winner ever for her role as Hushpuppy? Time will certainly tell, but one scene in particular may just clinch her a victory.

Finally, I want to end by complimenting Benh Zeitlin, an inspiration to the future of filmmaking. As someone from my generation, he’s a visionary whose work I can’t wait to see further evolved in future projects, it that’s even possible. He has raised the bar for youth creativity and scope in the cinematic form. At 29 years-old, Zeitlin acts as though he’s been making motion pictures since the heydays of Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith.  Zeitlin has a way of stringing together events in such a way that they feel more adventurous, enticing, and titillating than they’d normally be by a less-than-stellar director at the helm. When it rains in Beasts of the Southern Wild, it’s a torrent. When chaos occurs, it feels as though the apocalypse has arrived. When his characters cry, they drench — not so much in the thickness of their tears, but by the grandiosity of their emotional outpouring. Every facet of detail in this film serves as one giant, visceral experience that brings us back to our natural, pun intended, roots. Why bother going to different planets, universes, or galaxies to find hidden wonder and beauty when we have uncharted magnificence just lying in wait back on Earth? Only a brilliant and imaginative mind like Benh Zeitlin’s could turn his narrative focus inward, looking at the magic and supernatural mystique of the Louisiana marshlands to tell his original tale. I’ll be honest — I didn’t expect the screenplay to be much of anything. Oh, how wrong I was. Each line of dialogue doesn’t seem a bit cliché or familiar. Because it’s Hushpuppy that narrates Beasts of the Southern Wild, much of the screenplay comes from the words that Wallis recites. He perfectly understands her childlike mannerisms and realistic responses to a tee, and thus his script espouses unlimited realism and authenticity. Even the adult characters speak in a way that doesn’t feel remotely Hollywood. This comes from the scrupulous research Zeitlin undertook during the filming process — he studied the ways the bayou natives spoke, built an understanding of their cultural idiosyncrasies, and then fleshed out his script from all his gathered probing of the wild terrain and its enigmatic inhabitants.

But Zeitlin isn’t the sole contributor of this project that deserves recognition. Ben Richardson’s cinematography could very well be up for an Oscar by next spring. He gives the world of Beasts of the Southern Wild a grainy, slightly disheveled feel that stays true to the landscape and harshness of “The Bathtub.” However, let’s not forget to applaud Quvenzhané Wallis for being the heart and soul of this cinematic gem. She delivers greatly when called upon to channel the deepest and darkest of emotions. The fact that she remains an exuberant kid throughout it all just proves Wallis’ mastery for taking direction and her deep understanding of Hushpuppy’s complexities. I can see where some people might think her “Best Actress” chances are slim — Wallis’ best lines are though her voice-over narration, and some may say her ability to narrate is stronger than her acting when in frame. I say bah humbug! Trust me, you’ll see the exact scene where Wallis can win her Oscar, and believe me when I say you’ll be jolted in the best way possible as it’s happening. In total, Beasts of the Southern Wild is independent filmmaking that has a larger pulse and higher aspirations than the biggest of Hollywood blockbusters. The journey you take with Beasts of the Southern Wild will be like that of a glorious boat-ride. You bob up and down, excitement at an all-time high, with the cool wind in your face and the majestic sea in front of you, waiting to be charted.

Beasts of the Southern Wild’s official release date is June 27th, 2012. I implore you to see it wherever you’re able to!