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Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

| August 14, 2012 | 0 Comments

The people in Beasts of the Southern Wild seem to be clinging to the edge of the world.  Seemingly cast away from civilization, they are a small group of people who have been through a natural disaster but have a resolve and a determination never to be victims.  Crying, for them, is an abomination.  As the movie opens we aren’t exactly sure where we are and it takes some time to understand what has happened.  Once we do, we realize that we are in a place most of us would instinctively turn away from.

The place, we come to understand, is a small island just off the shores of southern Louisiana close to the edge of New Orleans.  It probably has a fancy, uninteresting official name, but to its inhabitance it is known simply as “The Bathtub”.  It is a Delta marsh that is spaced away from the rest of world in an area still devastated by Hurricane Katrina and by the rains that come down in buckets.  The people who live there, which seem to number about 20, live in shacks cobbled together out of the scraps tossed away from the mainland.  They fish off of a boat made out of the amputated bed of a pick-up truck.  Just across the river are the levies and beyond we see the silhouettes of oil refineries.  The people of The Bathtub want their own freedoms.  They are dirt poor and come to the understanding that if they rejoin society, they will have no freedoms.  Their lives will be mired in government programs, welfare, ghettos and misery.  Here, at least, they can make their own way.  A threat to their idealism comes in the presence of helicopters that fly overhead making the announcement that the area is to be evacuated.

In the midst of this chaotic setting, our eyes focus on a tiny six-year old with fiery eyes and an immovable spirit.  She probably has a proper name somewhere on paper, but to her father she is known only as Hushpuppy.  The first time we see her, she is rummaging around in the litter-strewn yard with an appearance so disheveled that, at first, we don’t even register that she is a girl.  It is impossible not to feel something for her in this surrounding, but once we get to know her, we come to understand that this is a child of such strength and intelligence that she could survive anything.

Hushpuppy lives in this backwater with her father Wink (Dwight Henry), a good man who drinks too much and has a sickness that will soon kill him.  His job is to teach his daughter survival skills.  He teaches her how to fish with her bare hands and how to construct a makeshift raft for the fateful day when the rain eventually drowns The Bathtub.  He spends his leisure time trying to enflame her spirit, inspiring her to face life with Herculean strength.

What draws us to Hushpuppy is not just her fighting spirit but her imagination.  Her inner monologue narrates the film and we hear a child who is deep and poetic.  She sees the universe as a chaotic mess that needs to be fixed.  “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right.” she says, “If one piece busts, even the smallest piece the whole universe will get busted.”  In her mind we see images of Arctic ice breaking away, releasing an ancient boar-hog called an Auroch.  We see her fantasy of facing one of the beasts down by staring unflinchingly into its eyes.  This is a symbol of how she will face down the world that will try to decimate her spirit.  She tells us that, “Strong animals know when hearts are weak.”

Beasts of the Southern Wild, which was the darling of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, winning The Caméra d’Or (The Golden Camera) and the Grand Jury Prize, is one of those films that is about a time and place, not just about a plot.  This is a movie about a specific person, in a specific place, how she thinks and how she deals with the world.  Hushpuppy is played by Quvenzhané Wallis, who was five years-old when shooting started and seven when the film wrapped.  There has never been a performance quite like this.  Most of her performance takes place in her face, which contains steady eyes that seem ready to stare down the world, and a clinched jaw that draws up into stubborn resolve.  There is no mugging here, no cute kid phoniness.  There is poetry to her thinking and a survivalist spirit in her heart.  Wallis has the ability to translate so much to the audience without saying a single word.  This is the best performance by any actor this year.

Beasts of the Southern Wild, which is based on a play by Lucy Alibar that was called “Juicy and Delicious” is one of those strange, odd and mysterious films that sneaks up on you.  You aren’t sure what to make of it when it starts, but you quickly find yourself wrapped up in the story.  It is a deep and challenging film that never panders to the audience.  It asks us to observe a child with a warrior’s spirit but still with a wandering imagination.  She is remarkable, and so is her story.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2012) View IMDB Filed in: Drama, Indie