“Sometimes you can break something so bad, that it can’t get put back together“. Few movies in recent memory can boast the sheer originality of Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin’s haunting and unforgettable coming-of-age film, which sees the world through the imagination of a feral 6-year-old girl. It’s a beautiful and oddly poetic fairy tale about the power of a child’s imagination, set in a semi-fantastical world where humongous prehistoric creatures are rampaging the landscape.
Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is our tiny protagonist, a fierce little girl growing up in squalid conditions amidst detritus and livestock in a dirt-poor Louisiana backwater community known as “The Bathtub”. Largely neglected by her ailing father, Wink (Dwight Henry), she spends her days mingling fantasy with her desolate reality like only a wide-eyed six-year-old can. But when a Katrina-like storm seemingly brings her world to an end, Hushpuppy must confront the harsh realities of the adult world, and along the way learn to fend for herself.
Through it all, Beasts of the Southern Wild is unlike anything you may have seen in recent years. This film will transport you to a world that is simultaneously grounded in reality and yet so surreal, a world where sheer poverty is seen as beautiful and a blessing. Hushpuppy’s relationship with her father is the heart of the movie and mad props must go to Zeitlin for coaxing such terrific performances from two first-time actors that they don’t seem to be acting at all.
Dwight Henry, the real-life owner of the Buttermilk Drop Bakery & Café in New Orleans’s Seventh Ward, is terrific as Wink, the often-drunk father who sometimes leaves his daughter on her own for days at a time. But as the poignant third act reveals, the father-daughter bond between the two is as powerful as any you are likely to see on film. Wink is stubbornly attached to the Bathtub and his way of life (“I ain’t starving to death while people going grocery shopping”). He is also dead set on giving tough love to his daughter so she grows up to be strong enough for anything the world throws at her.
And yet it’s Quvenzhané Wallis, who was 6-year-old at time of filming, who must bear the load on her tiny shoulders and she is a riveting force of nature as Hushpuppy. She is adorable, smart, strong and yet so obviously fragile, repeatedly calling out for the mother she never knew. Despite her young age, her voice-over ruminations on how she sees the world are often hilarious and acutely wise. Seeing the world through her purely innocent eyes is a thing of wonder and it’s such an enchanting and fiercely moving performance that you will have a tough time finding a more naturalistic child performance in the annals of cinema.
Loosely based on the stage play Juicy and Delicious by Lucy Alibar, Beasts of the Southern Wild was made on a shoestring budget but it’s undeniable that it didn’t limit first time director Benh Zeitlin’s creative ambitions. The film is loaded with metaphors and allegories which at times aren’t all that coherently integrated with the main narrative arc. The primary offending element would be the imagery of long-extinct prehistoric Aurochs as incoming cataclysmic change, which seemed quite extraneous. But when it’s all said and done, this is such an original and exceptionally beautiful film that any minor flaw can be forgiven.
Strikingly raw and poignantly beautiful, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a singular cinematic experience, a celebration of the human spirit.