It is a very rare thing these days to be surprised by a movie. In this case I’m not talking about the quality of films, although that also applies, but rather the fact that we tend to know so much more about a movie before we see it. Even though I myself am guilty of finding clips and production photos while a movie is still in production, I think it does a movie a disservice to know too much about it before the lights dim in the theater. So last Friday, after just reading some of the blurbs regarding this festival darling, I jumped in my car, drove to Hollywood, and beat the Silverlake and Los Feliz mob before reading or hearing anything else about it. What I was hoping for was a similar experience to the ones I had when I went in blind to see such films as The Crying Game, Sling Blade, and Pulp Fiction, and I was not disappointed. Beasts of the Southern Wild is my favorite movie so far this year.
Quvenzhane Wallis plays a six year-old girl called Hushpuppy who lives with her father on a small island known as The Bathtub somewhere near the Mississippi Delta. In the opening sequence we see little Hushpuppy, her father, and most of the residents of the island drinking, laughing, dancing, eating crawfish, and howling at the moon. We listen to her narration as we fly along with the folks in a sequence that brought to mind early Terrence Malick, only screaming with more life. We see that she has a relationship with her natural surroundings that is fearless and wise. One of her favorite things to do is listen to the beating heart of every creature that comes her way. We see her press a live crab, claws and all, up against her ear without batting an eye. Even though she and her father live together, they both occupy different structures that are elevated high up to help with the frequent flooding. Her father is played by Dwight Henry, and he creates an unforgettable character.
Director Benh Zeitlin first presents Hushpuppy’s father, known as Wink, as a man who seems more a danger to her than a guardian. We see that he drinks constantly, yells at her, and doesn’t seem to be the least bit concerned that there are about a hundred ways for her to be injured or killed in this environment. Henry plays Wink without a trace of judgment or concern for likability. Wink is a lean, volatile force of nature completely void of fear or caution. The only thing he seems to fear is a still and quiet moment. Looking up Henry’s resume, I was shocked to see that this is his first feature role, and that he is actually the owner of a southern bakery. His performance in this film is the only one so far this year that I would call Oscar worthy. To some people his work here might seem like some guy just screaming a lot and acting crazy, but believe me, there’s a method to his madness, and it’s brilliant. He and Wallis make the evolution of their relationship genuine and transcendent, and like Henry, Wallis is a revelation.
Zeitlin deserves much credit for creating a world that is seemingly grounded in reality, yet filled with mysticism and magic. The Bathtub is not an actual place, and we do get some leaps in logic, but for me it was easy to just go with it. There are moments when our young heroine utilizes her imagination as a way to help her understand some of the heavy issues she’s confronted with, but we never get lost or confused. In one of the final scenes we get a surprise that is as visually striking as anything from Akira Kurosawa or Steven Spielberg.
While writing this, I thought I should do everyone reading the service of not revealing too much about what happens in this movie. I’ll just say that such elements as a giant storm, felony vandalism, prehistoric beasts, a homeless shelter, and a floating brothel come into play. The important thing to know now is that this movie, produced by a group of artists from New Orleans known as Court13, leaps from the screen with a level of vitality and originality that I haven’t seen since City of God. The performances are genuine, the photography is sharp and real, the score, from Zeitlin and Dan Romer, is perfect, and the story is hard to resist. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a film with a fierce and pounding heart.
Below is the trailer for “Beasts of the Southern Wild”