Film Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild

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If you’re looking at Beasts of the Southern Wild, and wondering, “Is this a fantasy film? Is it horror? Is that gigantic warthog thingy in the preview going to eat someone?” you’re in the same boat I was a few days ago. The word around Beasts has been growing for months, ever since winning major prizes at both Sundance and Cannes. If you’ve turned on your TV, you’ve probably seen the images of the young protagonist – Hushpuppy – fighting her way through the bayou of New Orleans, coming face-to-face with the titular beasts. With all that buzz and beautiful imagery swirling in the air, it might sadden genre fans to hear that – despite some impressive fantastic moments – the film is about 80% stark naturalism and 20% surreal other-worldliness. That said, there’s no denying it’s a stunning film, a hypnotic, haunting tale of maturing with a visceral feel that few other films have been able to offer this year.

Hushpuppy starts the film as a wee, mainly defenseless girl. She lives with her father, Wink, in the swamps of New Orleans, a part of them they call “The Bathtub,” and they run through the mud, drink beer, and shoot off fireworks. Unlike so many Hollywood films, the goal here isn’t to shout, “Look how terrible their impoverished existence is! Shouldn’t we save them?!” Instead, the point is that Hushpuppy and Wink (usually) come across stronger and happier than most of the people in the audience, watching their film.

All does not stay well, though – Hurricane Katrina hits The Bathtub, and sickly Wink must train his daughter how to stay alive in their wasted paradise. And it’s the performances of these two – upcomer Qvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy and Dwight Henry as her father – that enliven the film. Strong, natural performances are a well-known nightmare to get out of children, but six year old Qvenzhane sinks so deep into the role of the bayou-raised Hushpuppy, you’ll damn near think you’re watching a documentary. She’s quiet, inquisitive, headstrong, and near the film’s end, a confident leader – and you’d never guess she was any other way. Seeing an interview with Qvenzhane just makes the performance all the more shocking. And her father, as the boisterous, no-bullshit Wink, is a lightning bolt of a performance – a tough, scary, heartbreaking role, torn between caring for Hushpuppy and making sure she has the skills to survive.

 
If what you’re curious about is the film’s more magical elements, though, they mainly come in metaphorical moments. Guillermo del Toro seems like a possible point of reference here, but director Benh Zeitlin doesn’t go near that far into the supernatural. The fantastic here comes in the shape of massive, multi-horned hogs that wander the desolate space between their home and the bayou, silently waiting for a fateful meeting with Hushpuppy. The film has other, more abstract moments of weirdness – at times, Hushpuppy’s disappeared mother speaks to her through a basketball jersey she left behind, and the film yields an odd, ambiguous moment that connects Hushpuppy’s family and friends to the real-life breaking of the levees. And while the mystical moments here are perfectly suited for the film’s low-key tone, genre fans will probably want to know that they’re in for subtlety over spectacle.

 
That said, if you’re a fan of independent cinema, Beasts of the Southern Wild is definitely one of the most electrifying films you’ll see this year. The filmmaking is entrancing; the atmosphere is engrossing; the performances are genuine; and the magic just feels real. It takes a stark, terrifying historical moment still living in our memory, and gives us a kind of faith against the apocalyptic fears Hurricane Katrina created in its wake. It gives voices to people who have mainly silenced. And that voice feels all too rare in the filmmaking world of today.

Rating: 4.75/5 ★★★★¾ 

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About Josh_C

Josh has studied film at the Universities of Missouri and Florida, and he is currently studying horror film and popular culture in the Communication and Culture program at Indiana University. He has previously worked with the True/False Documentary Film Festival and the Ragtag Theatre in Columbia, Missouri, and he served as short-term production assistant on This Film Is Not Yet Rated. He is currently working on a dissertation on independent horror, horror film festivals, and horror fandom; feel free to contact him to discuss any of the above! He is also studying Dark Carnival Film Festival (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com).

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