Title: Beasts of the Southern Wild
Genre(s): Drama, Fantasy
Director(s): Benh Zeitlin
Release Year: 2012
Rotten Tomatoes: 86%
It is always a refreshing sight to watch a film with relatively unknown actors, that can make you love a film more than any other aspect of the movie. Hailee Steinfeld did that for me in True Grit, and so did Chloë Moretz in Kick-Ass (both have done work previous to those films mentioned, but they never took off until then). In Beasts of the Southern Wild, Quvenzhané Wallis takes the movie from a convoluted message with pretty pictures, to a film that has more emotional depth than even seems possible. Perhaps that is the most infuriating thing about Beasts of the Southern Wild: its charm comes almost entirely from Wallis, with some added engrossment from the visual style and underlying score.
The film follows Hushpuppy (Wallis), as she maneuvers through daily life in “the bathtub”, a region of the United States that seems very close to representing a post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans with its flooded terrain and culture. She lives with her father (Dwight Henry), an alcoholic with a terminal illness that leads him to acting in strange ways around her. The enjoyment from this film mainly comes from Hushpuppy’s relationship with her dad, and the subsequent interactions that occur. Both actors do an incredible job at giving a weight of emotion to the movie, one that ultimately is the driving force for the film. Unfortunately, it is a movie that really lags in the third act, but comes to a settling conclusion. There are many scenes that feel drawn out, and I can think of a specific scene that takes place in a bar which introduced an important character in Hushpuppy’s life, but not a character that in the end gives anything back to her. There could be an argument that not having met this character would result in a lack of motivation and strength to do what she does in the final scenes, but as a character, she had always held the potential to do what she did ever since the beginning of the film.
Writing is generally well done in this film, which is adapted from a play, but it never really delivers any one message cohesively. There are many ideas in the film that seem intriguing, and if I were to take away two messages from the movie it would be something about the negative consequences of global warming, and the circle of life. The problems that arise are when you try to look at the film and see these messages clearly laid out. The global warming message is one that is really important as it’s the reason that the Aurochs (primitive beasts that were frozen in the Ice Age) are awoken and are able to roam the Earth. You’ll spend the moments the Aurochs are on screen in wonder, and forget about them for the most part while they’re not on the screen. I spent most of the film waiting to see them meet up with Hushpuppy and the other residents of “the bathtub” and when the moment finally comes that the two forces meet, it’s definitely an incredible moment that visually pleases, but it doesn’t really fulfill any message in the end. The Aurochs wind up seeming pretty pointless because of the way they are handled in the movie. I also recommend not seeing the trailer for this film before watching it, as it definitely hypes up the Aurochs to be an integral part of the story, but they really don’t get that much screen time. I would argue that the trailer shows virtually everything you will get from the Aurochs minus a key ending to the meeting between them and Hushpuppy.
The visual style of the film is definitely something worth taking note of though, as it really becomes one of the high points of the film. The camera is almost always up close to the point of interest, so when Wallis gets to flex her acting chops and deliver the emotional impact for a scene, the camera is there waiting with bated breath. Beautiful shots of nature compliment the uplifting score that never takes control of a scene but lets it soak into the music. Once again though, most of the more enticing visuals come from the Aurochs, but the way the camera frames certain shots that don’t include the beasts is beautiful nonetheless. It really becomes unfair to this film that it have so many issues with the message, because it definitely seemed like its entire intention was to leave the viewer with a sense of awareness. Instead, the movie really plays like a visually appealing piece of poetry, left with many interpretations within each act.
Beasts of the Southern Wild really is a film that is worth watching, despite my complaints. You’ll probably get lots of discussion out of it trying to decipher what its key message is, and if you’re not the kind of person who goes to see a film for anything more than for eye-candy, you will get plenty of that as well. It really is the acting from Quvenzhané Wallis that will raise the most eyebrows from moviegoers though. The way she can command a scene with just her presence alone leaves me wanting more from her. Fortunately, she is signed on for Steve McQueen’s third film Twelve Years a Slave so hopefully that gets her more exposure from Hollywood. Not only her, but I’d also like to see more from Benh Zeitlin and see what else he can do behind the camera.