DIRECTED BY: Benh Zeitlin
FEATURING: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Gina Montana, Lowell Landis, Levy Easterly
PLOT: A young girl named Hushpuppy lives in an isolated bayou community known as “The
Bathtub”, cut off from the rest of the world by levees. A massive storm destroys much of her home and she, her ailing father, and their friends must find a way to survive in a flooded, dying land.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Benh Zeitlin offers a unique fantasy that is grounded in the reality of global climate change and environmental disasters like Hurricane Katrina. There is little exposition, and our understanding of this world comes through a six-year-old girl, resulting in a dreamlike and perplexing story that might just be weird enough for the List.
COMMENTS: Filmed in an intimate style and focusing solely on the perspective of the defiant but loveable Hushpuppy, Beasts of the Southern Wild presents an alternate way of living, one that is in harmony with nature even in the challenging landscape of a flooded bayou. Hushpuppy and her father care for numerous animals, residing in two separate trailers made up of composite parts and mementos of her long-lost mother. Their town frequently holds large celebrations, honoring a lifestyle free from the constraints and responsibilities of civilization on the other side of the levee. Hushpuppy is taught that everything in the universe is connected to everything else, and she believes the great storm that destroys her home has unsettled the world’s harmony. It is her mission to restore balance, working together with the Bathtub’s remaining denizens as they escape on ramshackle boats, hoping the land they’ve loved for so long won’t betray them.
With the lines between reality and fantasy artfully blended and fascinating waterlogged landscapes, the film is as much a visual treat as it is an environmental parable. Everything is familiar and yet somehow unreal, with slight dystopian elements that open the film up to myriad possibilities. Zeitlin’s camera sticks closely to Hushpuppy, with intermittent cutaways to the rampaging beasts of the title: great, ancient aurochs awakened after centuries encased in ice, who may or may not be figments of her imagination. Many of the film’s ideas and themes are epic in scope, but smartly distilled into something more accessible through the eyes of a small child.
Wallis is exceptional in the lead role. We see and feel her experiences so completely, though her precocious nature makes us wonder just how much she understands. She perfectly embodies this resilient, fierce character who loves her standoffish father but longs for the kind of tender affection she imagines her mother would give. Her relationship with her father is complex; he is volatile and at times abusive, tormented by a heart disease he can’t fight and an unwillingness to show weakness. He wants to imbue Hushpuppy with independence and self-sufficiency, pushing her to age rapidly while remaining emotionally distant to shield himself. Hushpuppy recognizes what is happening but cannot accept it, believing part of her mission for the universe is saving her father from the wild beasts coming to claim him.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is beautiful, ambitious, and strange, with a strong emotional center that resonates long after the credits roll. It is advertised as a kind of apocalyptic adventure story but in truth it is more focused on relationships and themes of community and responsibility. The cinematography is intimate and dreamlike, with a clear vision that rarely relies on special effects to impress viewers. The script is steeped in social commentary but never resorts to preachiness, as Zeitlin wisely maintains focus on the wonderful little fireball that is Quvenzhané Wallis. It is a thought-provoking and heartfelt tale of survival with unique touches of ambiguity and fantasy that keep it compelling.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Its fertility and its terror stem from the same truth: To the young mind, there is no sealed barrier cleaving reality from fantasy. Not yet. The wall hasn’t been built.” –Amy Biancolli, San Francisco Chronicle