Promo art © 2012 Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is by turns life-affirming, death-defying, and mystifying. It was one of my favorite movies of last year.
Quvenzhané Wallis, only 6 years old at the time of filming, is a complete natural as narrator and focal character Hushpuppy — the young resident of an isolated Louisiana bayou community known as the Bathtub.
If you have absolutely no tolerance for magical realism, then (a) you should skip the film and (2) I'm sorry. Otherwise, I highly recommend it despite things wandering a little too far off course towards the end. I'll pick up from there after the jump/photo with spoilers.
Beasts is built around such a gritty reality that it's perhaps inevitable for conflict to arise during the heightened reality of Hushpuppy and friends' dreamlike interlude at sea on the floating bar where Hushpuppy may or may not meet a waitress who may or may not be her mother.
I vacillated over that first "may or may not". Once the kids get back to land it's pretty clear that their excursion did indeed occur, even though their safe travel and the brief passage of time feel implausible in a way that the arrival of prehistoric cattle somehow doesn't. The whole point of magical realism is that baldly impossible things happen in an otherwise real world, as opposed to — at the risk of oversimplifying — reality-based extrapolations in science fiction or entirely different paradigms of reality in outright fantasy. But those impossible things are usually limited in number or scope. In Beasts that magical element is the Aurochs of whom Hushpuppy learns in school, to whom she feels connected, and whom she ultimately stares down; the odd, melancholy elysium where weary seafarers find weary companionship was an intriguing yet ultimately overreaching detour.
At first I thought that the trip out to sea was Beasts' endgame, presenting a new and idyllic life for the Bathtub's orphaned young survivors, and accepted it in that context. Hushpuppy's rejection by her mother, or at least potential mother figure, frustrated me in-story and once the trip was over struck me as the script having meandered a bit too far structurally as well. Beasts has nothing on Django Unchained when it comes to falling apart in the final act(s), however, and overall it was such a rich experience that I take it as it is.
The now 9-year-old Quvenzhané (kwuh-ven-juh-nay) Wallis became the youngest Best Actress nominee in Oscar history. Previous record-holder Keisha Castle-Hughes got the nod for Whale Rider, one of my absolute favorite films, a Maori fable that admirers of Beasts of the Southern Wild should likewise enjoy.
Wallis as Hushpuppy and Dwight Henry as her father, Wink, are both novice actors who completely inhabit their roles. You'd think from what they and the rest of the untrained cast deliver that a lack of formal acting experience would be the key to piercingly honest, uninhibited performances on film, but of course a wider sampling of first-timers suggests otherwise. Director and co-screenwriter Benh Zeitlin, who with Lucy Alibar adapted Beasts from Alibar's stage play Juicy and Delicious, deserves all the acclaim coming his way for having made such an accomplished, idiosyncratic feature debut.
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