Review of Beasts of the Southern Wild


Beware: “Beasts” has the power to burst into your mind and your heart and bury itself there for weeks to come. A well-deserved winner at both the Cannes and Sundance Film Festival, this triumph of a movie from debut filmmaker Benh Zeitlin is as fierce, moving, and passionate a film as I can remember seeing in years. And at its center is a performance of schere force, and it comes from a 6-year-old no less.

Based on a stage play by Lucy Alibar, Quvenghane Wallis plays HushPuppy (who also serves as our wise narrator), a young girl living on the water side of post-Katrina New Orleans called “The Bathtub.” Abandoned by her mother, she is raised by an often absentee father named Wink (Dwight Henry), who provides tough lessons so that she can one day live in this place, a barren forest with nothing but trees and huts devastated by rain and strewn with garbage. The ice caps melting all together is an inevitability, forcing everyone to band together, both to protect home and keep government authority from running them off. In a subplot, aurochs, frozen for thousands of years, defrost and are headed straight for them.

Before anyone starts screaming “exploitation”, know that Katrina is barely even mentioned, nor is the rising water used for some “woe is us” crap. Instead Zeitlin gives us fantasy (there are more than a few scenes that remind of “Where the Wild Things Are”), romanticism (the story of Wink meeting Hushpuppy’s mother is unforgettable) and a story that is one of pride, strength, community, celebration and never backing down. It’s hard not to feel the “love of home” here (parades, fish meals, and fireworks), the close-knit neighborliness, nor can the powerful elements be denied, brilliantly portrayed by Henry, an area native and baker, and true phenom Wallis, also a native. Henry gives Wink a wild, play-by-his-own-rules lunacy, but at the same time he knows he won’t be around forever, that life is cruel, and he expects his daughter to find the toughness to fend for herself. These scenes resonate, and Wallis is really a true find, a profoundly smart and fiery heart-melter who I would love to see walk off with a couple of awards by the end of the year. This is really one heck of a performance that alone would be well worth seeing. But “Beasts” does such an outstanding job of making us care for a people and culture that, especially if you live in a big city, seems unbelievable and Dan Romer’s fantastic musical score just completes this exquisite love-letter, to both the bayou and movie audiences.