Review: "Beasts of the Southern Wild"

Generally speaking, my opinion of a movie is usually at its highest point immediately following my viewing. By the time I get down to writing my review, I’ve usually talked myself down a bit and have explored the film’s flaws, even if they aren’t that significant. It is the rare film, however, that has the reverse effect. If I’m not completely sold on a film by the time I walk out of a theater, I usually won’t come around on its merits a day or two later. Beasts of the Southern Wild, then, is an exception to the rule, a film I found to be good while watching but may in fact be great given time to gestate.

Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) and her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), live in The Bathtub, a small Louisiana village on the wrong side of the levee. When a massive hurricane rolls through and devastates The Bathtub and its surrounding area, Hushpuppy, Wink, and a rag-tag group of fellow survivors band together not only to survive but also to preserve their way of life. But while conditions in their own world worsen, Wink himself begins to succumb to the side effects of his hidden disease, leaving Hushpuppy to learn how to take care of herself.

I’m going to be straightforward with you dear reader(s). Beasts of the Southern Wild is not a film that can be easily processed and explained in under a thousand words. If ever there was a film that needed to be experienced firsthand, this is it. There is a distinct Malickian feel to every aspect of Beasts. In fact, it bears a striking resemblance to Tree of Life, a comparison I’m sure every film critic will make but one that needs to be mentioned nevertheless. Unlike Tree of Life, however, Beasts puts together a cohesive, linear storyline for its central figure and as such, it is a much more relatable film and one that can be appreciated by the average moviergoer, whereas I felt like a pretentious snob for expressing my great admiration for Tree of Life knowing that most of my readers would not like it.

On the surface, Beasts is a touching story about a brave young girl battling against all the long odds the world has to throw at her but there is much more at play here than just one girl’s journey. At its very core, Beasts is about life itself and the way in which the universe works. Hushpuppy and her band of merry misfits are simply the medium through which director Benh Zeitlin chooses to tell his story and he does so with great elegance. It is far too common to see this sort of far-reaching, broad spectrum film misuse the central figure, almost as a pawn sacrificed for the greater good, and thereby stripping the protagonist of his/her value. (For the record, I think this was the biggest issue with Tree of Life and what kept it from resonating with most viewers.) But here, Hushpuppy stands not only as a triumphant hero in the face of certain destruction but also a symbol for the film’s true meaning. As Hushpuppy goes, so goes the world, as it were.

Perhaps none of this would hit home, however, without an exquisite performance by Wallis. A remarkable young talent who has never appeared on camera before, Wallis is an absolute force on the screen, commanding the viewer’s attention at every turn with a stunning mix of power, vulnerability, and sincerity. Many of her lines come in the form of narration, a risky proposition that is used brilliantly in Beasts. Hushpuppy has a difficult life and Wallis, along with the pitch-perfect staging by Zeitlin, embodies the toughness one would have to develop in order to survive while still maintaining an air of childlikeness, an all-important characteristic that not only gives the film its realism but also allows for actual character and plot development. Beasts doesn’t wallow in the harshness of Hushpuppy’s life and it also doesn’t jump directly into the pool of sympathy for her character the way many films like this do. Instead, Hushpuppy grows through her various situations and as a result, the viewer becomes attached to her not to her circumstances. That’s a very important difference in my book and it stands as this film’s master stroke.

Wallis’ mesmerizing and soulful performance is highlighted by the technical proficiency of those behind the camera. The cinematography is lavish and beautiful, the special effects are effective, and even the sound is pitch-perfect. All of these elements continually combine to set a fantastical stage on which Wallis and her supporters can work. Beasts is at times quite difficult to watch and is by no means a comfortable experience. More than once I found myself squirming like I was watching a horror movie simply because of the honesty with which the film handles its subject matter. I will also be the first to admit that I didn’t fully understand all of its symbolism, much of which centers on a pack of prehistoric aurochs. (Then again, as my high school English teachers would attest, I never was one for symbolism.) Nevertheless, Beasts is a remarkable, beautiful film that has completely won me over and one that I would encourage everyone to head out to see for themselves.