Synopsis: Faced with her father’s fading health and environmental changes that release an army of prehistoric creatures called aurochs, six-year-old Hushpuppy leaves her Delta-community home in search of her mother.
Stars: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Running Length: 93 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: Arriving smack dab in the middle of 2012, we may have found one of the ten best films of the year. It’s not hard to see why Beasts of the Southern Wild emerged from the film festival circuit as an audience and critical favorite. It’s stylistically different from any other film released so far this year (or maybe in the last several years) and it has two of the most impressive performances committed to celluloid in recent memory. Made on a shoe-string budget and using largely non-actors, Beasts of the Southern Wild is that rare cinematic miracle of a picture that everyone should see and be talking about.
Check your technology at the door because the world exhibited in the film is one far removed from the hustle and bustle of our information centric society. The film is set in a Louisiana bayou community where luxuries are non-existent, meals are entirely dependent on resourcefulness, and sticking together is the greatest reward. The residents of The Bathtub (as the community is called) live in ramshackle abodes, riverfront shacks, or trailers nestled deep in the Mississippi Delta. The first five minutes of the movie tracks 24 hours in the life of six year old Hushpuppy (Wallis) as she goes about her daily business of entertaining herself, keeping an eye on her troubled father, and reveling in the togetherness The Bathtub encourages. It’s a pulsating and intoxicating way to start the film and it really took my breath away.
Screenwriter Lucy Alibar worked with director Zeitlin to adapt her play and the expansion of her material works wonderfully onscreen. Zeitlin has given even the most secondary or tertiary characters full attention as he captures their interactions and reactions to what develops over the course of ninety minutes. Nearly all of the names listed in the credits were non-actors or actual residents of a similar congregation of people that the film follows. While the performances run the gamut from stellar to subpar, the absolute sense of authenticity is present and palpable.
Following Hushpuppy and her father Wink (Henry) as they battle floods, rainstorms, sickness, and sorrow may sound like a film that’s heavy with melancholy…one that requires a sunny walk around the lake after. In lesser hands, that may have been the case but Zeitlin navigates those treacherous waters with dexterity and strength to give way to a fully rounded movie-going experience that would be hard to duplicate. With Dan Romer, Zeitlin also contributes to the films score which is equally wonderful with its soaring melody that builds as the film progresses.
As talented as Zeitlin clearly is, the film is ultimately most successful thanks to its lead performances from Wallis and Henry. Henry happened to be working at his bakery while the film was being cast and grudgingly auditioned for the film, accepting the role only if he could rehearse during his non-work hours so he could continue to provide for his family. After finishing the film he went back to his day job and doesn’t have any interest in continuing to act – though I can imagine we’ll see him again at some point. His scenes with Wallis are so authentic and passionate, containing not one whiff of “acting”.
If ever there was a discussion on who the youngest nominee for Best Actress would be, it may just start with Wallis. While some can argue that the (at the time of shooting) 5 year old was simply reacting instead of acting there are sequences in this movie where an understanding shines in her eyes – and that can’t be taught or explained away. Hers is a hands-up, foot-stomping, glorious performance that rivals anything coming out of Hollywood now. The film simply would not have worked without her…no wonder she was cast out of a pool of 4,000 hopefuls. A lot of heavy things are heaped on her tiny shoulders and I’d be fascinated to know what kind of relationship she developed with Henry for the two of them to trust each other so implicitly – never more so than in scenes near the end of the film which are whoppers.
I’ve a feeling this will be the movie everyone talks about and no one ends up seeing. With so many bigger films arriving and its heavy subject matter, I can see why this might not be first on your list but it would be a huge mistake to let this one pass you by. If there’s any justice this film will have a major presence in the end-of-the-year Best Of lists and awards – don’t be the person that didn’t see it and wished you had.