Featuring: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Writers: Benh Zeitlin, Lucy Alibar
Australian release date: Thursday, September 13th 2012
Six-year-old wildchild Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives in a poor but spirited levee-isolated bayou community fetchingly named Bathtub, with ramshackle huts thrown together out of whatever flotsam and jetsam is available giving the impression of a slum. Impoverished though they might be, the residents seem happy enough with their lot. They’re hard-drinkin’ plain-livin’ raggle-taggle folk who like to feast on the bounteous spoils of their huntin’ and – mostly – fishin’ and dance to Cajun bluegrass belted out by the musicians in their midst.
Hushpuppy is left to herself most of the time, her mother gone and her father Wink (Dwight Henry) on a perpetual bender. She does her best to make sense of her animist world, which she perceives to be in a state of delicate balance. However, when a hundred year storm hits and raises the water to dangerous levels that threaten the community’s existence, her father is struck down with a terminal illness, and aurochs (giant hog-like prehistoric creatures) released from the melting polar icecaps migrate as far as Bathtub, this balance is thrown way off kilter. The diminutive hero must find a way to restore it.
As the synopsis suggests, it is not appropriate to subject this creatively busted out excursion to any sort of logical scrutiny. Beasts Of The Southern Wild is its own creature, unique, refusing to be critically caged. That doesn’t mean it is beyond criticism, of course. But it does mean that you either accept it on its own terms, or you’ll be left with a mouthful of mumbles that you might as well keep to yourself for all the good they’ll be in assessing this baby.
I’m not confident I understood the story. I confess, I found it a bit hard to follow. That would usually bother me, but it didn’t in this case. The film has a dream-like off-tilt quality about it. Would you baulk at the sudden appearance of giant prehistoric boars in a dream? Of course not. Would you accept the explanation that they’d come out of suspended animation when the polar icecaps melted? Sure. That’s how it is here.
Indeed, the content of the film – or a portion of it – may be dreamt by Hushpuppy. It doesn’t really matter. Let’s forget about whether the more fantastical elements make sense. The real question is does the film work? What’s good about it? What’s not?
Hushpuppy checks her messages (mobiles go cheep on the bayou)
Well, firstly, Quvenzhané Wallis is astounding as Hushpuppy, a veritable tour de force. She carries the movie, effortlessly, on her tiny shoulders. She’s irresistibly cute and endearing, but not in the way you associate with Hollywood kiddie stars. This kid’s got a wonderful untamed edge about her, an energy and attitude all her own, and her performance comes across as both intuitive and informed by an onscreen intelligence that far transcends her age. Quite baffling, given that this is her acting debut.
In fact, you wonder whether she wasn’t plucked straight out of a backwoods bayou community, in which case maybe she had never seen a movie camera – or a movie! I haven’t done any research on the background of the film. Maybe she lives in New Orleans and has been doing TV ads since she was a tot. I may be making a fool of myself here. Whatever. Wouldn’t be the first time, won’t be the last. I’m just speakin’ how I find.
Then there is the fascinating bayou milieu the filmmakers have captured (or should that be created?). It’s steamy, sweaty, soupy, primeval, teeming with life, perpetually regenerating on the rotting nutrients of death (a fine balance, just as Hushpuppy observes). Wonderful to be immersed in from the comfort of the cinema seat!
The inhabitants are another kettle of catfish. I was disturbed by the way they were presented. Everyone is dirty, grimy, feral, yet seemingly content for the most part, vital even, and at one with their environment. Never mind that Hushpuppy is left to cook for herself, frying up a ghastly concoction of catfood and condensed milk that she eats out of the pan. Or that she ends up burning the hut down when she leaves an untended saucepan on the stove. There’s a cartoon-like immunity to the reality of such dangers projected on to these people.
Hushpuppy plays safely in her backyard
Their heavy and almost perpetual drinking, too, is seemingly without consequence. What are we supposed to make of this? That they make ‘em tough round those parts? The men are ‘real men’ and so are the women – they can take it?
This macho stuff is even visited on Hushpuppy by papa Wink. When he’s not shouting at her to leave him alone, he hands out resounding high fives and exhorts her to scream back affirmations of “I’m da man! I’M da man”.
Hushpuppy at her daddy’s deportment class
At one of the community feasts, Hushpuppy is struggling to crack open one of an immense pile of fresh-cooked crabs with a knife. Her father instructs her to dispense with the tool and “beast it” (crack open the shell with her bare hands and tear out the flesh with her teeth). With the entire community chanting “Beast it! Beast it! Beast it!”, she tries and tries until valiantly, somehow, she finds the strength to break the crab open, and as the cheers erupt she triumphantly gorges herself on the flesh inside. It’s all a bit – dare I say it – noble savage. Hmmm.
Half-hearted charges of cultural patronisation aside, it’s funny and warming, in a sense, in both these instances, to see the little girl respond with all her might, striving to please daddy. The smile dies on your lips when it dawns that the sum total of his paternal contribution to his otherwise neglected daughter is to seek to toughen her up for the harsh world that awaits her when he is no longer around.
On the other hand, he knows something she doesn’t and that we only suspect until he collapses and is hospitalised – that he is seriously ill and his days are numbered. Spoiler? I don’t think so. This is not a film that relies on narrative tension to keep viewers in its grip.
Suddenly, Wink’s exhortation to Hushpuppy that if he ever becomes too old or ill to catch catfish and drink beer she is to set fire to him on a boat and float him away down the river is given pathos, and his quest to toughen her up for a life without him vindicated as a prophetic strategy that speaks of a deep practical paternal love. At least, we hope Hushpuppy sees it that way – and it seems she does.
Daddy and daughter share a moment
As her world teeters on the brink of collapse, she comes face to face with the ancient aurochs in a moment that is dramatically and movingly demonstrative of the challenges before her – and the natural world, as climatic catastrophe unleashes massive change on an ill-prepared planet.
When the environmentalist agenda that simmers beneath the surface of the film breaks out into the open, it has the effect of grounding a work otherwise infused with a liberated creative spirit. It’s an uneasy feeling, this sense of didacticism, because while it is admirable in intent (if you believe, as I do, that climate change is a threatening reality), it works against the grain of the film. It’s no deal-breaker though.
Beasts Of The Southern Wild is a work of startling originality, the like of which you will not have encountered before. I can promise you that. I can’t quite join the chorus of critical acclaim and bandying about of terms like genius. But there’s an arresting lyrical quality, an undeniable exuberance and a feeling of naïvely audacious creative liberation about this work that compels me to recommend it. Not to mention Quvenzhané Wallis’s performance, which alone makes it worth seeing.
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