Beasts of the Southern Wild Review
by Daniel Rester
Every once in a while, a great film comes along that catches people off guard. By this, I mean that the film doesn’t contain any recognizable stars and wasn’t made by some big-time director, yet it still manages to cause a stir. Such is the case with Beasts of the Southern Wild, a magnificent film that shook up Sundance and may possibly head to the Academy Awards night – and deservedly so.
Wild follows the character of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), a young girl that lives in a poor bayou community called “The Bathtub.” She lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), who tries to do well for Hushpuppy with the conditions they are in. Hushpuppy enjoys her life in “The Bathtub,” and often thinks of the connectedness of things in life – while often listening to the heartbeats of other creatures.
The young girl’s life is shaken, though, when a violent storm destroys “The Bathtub.” Wink (and a few of the other community members) insists on continuing to live there, despite the terrible circumstances and his failing health. Under the conditions, Hushpuppy must learn to connect to her father (while she still hopes for her mother to come back) while elements of fantasy stories seem to be blending with her reality; such things include the melting of ice-caps and the unleashing of ancient boar-like creatures called Aurochs.
Though it is never actually said, the film seemingly takes place in New Orleans during the post-Katrina days. But the specifics of time and place are not as important here as the ideas and emotions, or the sights and sounds. Wild is less interested in the politics of a historic event (with the exception of the ending) than with having sober-minded storytelling and imaginative filmmaking.
The film comes from first-time director Benh Zeitlin, a gifted young man with a great eye for detail and a way of touching the heart. Zeitlin and cinematographer Ben Richardson capture Wild with a poetic eye, vividly displaying the grimy life of “The Bathtub” and making the location like a character in itself. Zeitlin also does well at balancing the dramatic and fantasy elements of the story. The director is also aided by the music score of the film (which he helped make), which is a tremendous, beautiful piece of work that helps give the film more emotional weight.
Zeitlin may be the craftsman behind Wild, but Wallis is the heart. The young actress (five to six at the time of filming) gives a remarkably natural performance, good enough to cause envy among older Hollywood stars. Wallis captures all of the curiosity, pain, and love of the character of Hushpuppy with perfection – ranging from wide-eyed wonder to crushing sadness. Henry, a pastry shop owner in real life, also does an incredible job. The actor makes you feel for Wink even when the character is at his most stubborn and strange.
Despite all of its terrific qualities, Wild is not a masterpiece. The pacing is a bit slow at times, and the story becomes slightly jumbled towards the end (mostly in a bar scene). Also, Hushpuppy and Wink are the only characters the audience grows to care about, despite Zeitlin’s efforts to introduce more from the “Bathtub” community. Finally, I question the film’s accessibility for most general audience members. Zeitlin’s world is one to sink into for those who are curious, but it is so different in its look and feel from the usual that many people may be turned off by it. Or not. Who knows?
Wild may have been made by an unknown director and features unknown stars, but it’s highly worth seeking out. Director Zeitlin truly understands both storytelling and the art of filmmaking, and Wallis is a real find. The film is not like anything else to come out in recent years, which makes it both refreshing and rewarding for film buffs – and one of the best films of the year.
Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: A).