BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD is one of these magical realist New Orleans storm parable vehicles for an unknown 5-year-old actor. Kinda like early David Gordon Green meets Spike Jonze circa WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE with a dab of BEYOND THUNDERDOME. It deals with the racial and class divide in the face of imminent environmental disaster. You know the type.
Our protaganista and narrator is a tiny little girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) who lives in “The Bathtub,” a town on the other side of the levees. Everything is made of junk and they know when there’s a storm it’ll all be underwater, but they have alot of fun and celebrate more holidays than on the other side. They have fireworks and stuff. There’s music and drink.
Hushpuppy is raised by her dad Wink (Dwight Henry), but they live in separate houses and he’s kind of a dick, gets mad and tells her to leave him alone. Her mom left or died and all Hushpuppy has left of her is a basketball jersey that she talks to and makes food for, cooking up a big pot of goo and catfood using a blowtorch.
Maybe because he’s all she’s got, Hushpuppy has a rocky relationship with Wink. It keeps seeming like he’s disappeared, or died. She says she hopes he dies and she’ll eat birthday cake on his grave. But really the movie is all about her fear of losing him and his fear of dying and leaving her without anybody to take care of her. Come to think of it this is kind of like THE ROAD. But it seems pretty upbeat in comparison. There’s more joy, more color, more sun.
The Bathtub is like a post-apocalyptic wasteland, but its residents are more in control of their own destinies. They could leave before the storm (some do) but our heroes choose not to. They don’t want to leave their home, and even little Hushpuppy says she doesn’t want to run “like a bunch of pussies.” Even among the non-pussies who stay in the Bathtub there’s a philosophical disagreement about how civilized you should live. The debate is summed up when a man tries to teach Hushpuppy the proper way to eat a crab, and Wink angrily insists that she “beast it!”, teaching her to smash and violently bite at it like a tiger or something. This is his approach to life, which has helped them survive but also scared his daughter enough that in narration she casually mentions the possibility that he’ll kill her some day.
It’s very imaginative and has a strong sense of reality as it goes through the procedure of their daily lives, how they survive the flood, etc., while she spouts her kiddy versions of worldly philosophy buried in layers of Bathtub regional slang. It seems to all be shot on location, everything is dirty and damaged, camera work is handheld quasi-documentary style. One of these days these young directors are gonna have to learn how to shoot movies to look like actual movies, but for this particular one the style fits. And this grungy realism is infused with a sort of witch doctor approach to medicine and other fantastical touches. I think this is just the reality that the story takes place in, but some of it could be based on Hushpuppy’s childish understanding of the world around her, since she’s the one telling us the story.
The biggest fantasy element involves the primeval creatures called aurachs, unfrozen by environmental calamity and headed toward the Bathtub. This is the coolest effect I’ve seen in a while. I couldn’t figure out how the hell they did it because it doesn’t look like CGI, but it has such realistic muscle movements, and you see the feet running, I didn’t think it could be animatronic. Really good rod puppet? Animatronic with digital enhancement? As soon as it was over I looked through the extras and was excited to learn it was… shit, I’m gonna mark this as a SPOILER ’cause it was cool to watch it without knowing… it was baby pigs in costumes! They couldn’t get a greyhound to work for ALIEN 3, but this works.
The production design here is incredible. Houses made of junk, boats made of pickup trucks, a schoolhouse covered in spikes. And like LIFE OF PI alot of it’s in little boats, but done on a way lower budget and with a 5 year old star. Pretty impressive.
The lightning in a bottle that makes the movie is Wallis. Somehow, some way they just found a miraculously natural kid to play this character. On the blu-ray there’s footage from her audition and it’s as mindblowing as the famous Henry Thomas one from E.T. They have her doing scenes with an adult who is clearly not an actor and just does “read off of a card” type of acting, but she’s responding to him with facial expressions and saying lines and crying… it’s ridiculous.
In the Village Voice critic’s poll I voted Wallis for best actress, and I felt a little bad about it because there are adult women who spend their lives training and acting and they have such a hard time finding good roles and then here I am voting for a kindergartener who just seems to have been born somehow knowing how to do this. But I couldn’t deny it, it was the most impressive female performance I saw this year. Blame Hollywood I guess, but it’s not the kid’s fault. She’s amazing.
(also I haven’t seen ZERO DARK THIRTY yet or the one where Anne Hathaway sings and cries.)
Henry is also great, and he’s also not an experienced actor, he’s a guy who worked at a deli who they convinced to do it. He comes across as troubled and kinda scary but also genuinely loving in a way. Complicated, like a real guy. A guy that might work at a nearby deli.
This is a very unique and well-made movie. I enjoyed it alot, but I have to admit I felt a little weird when I realized it was made by a bunch of white people from New York. It has a sort of romanticization of crushing Southern poverty, treating living in filth as a rebellious act and charming quirk. It promotes the idea that everybody could flee from a flood and the people who get stuck in it are the people who were too stubborn to leave. And its depiction of Hushpuppy’s stripper mother and sometimes abusive father (to toughen her up? because he drinks too much?) would seem like a cultural critique if it was Lee Daniels or somebody, so what does it mean coming from Benh Zeitlin and his Wesleyan University chums? It seems a little condescending to me.
Luckily I think the movie is good enough to mostly transcend that problem. It strongly identifies with these characters in a way that can’t be denied, even though it’s showing the poor as a bunch of alcoholics who want to live in garbage and refuse medical attention.
If you can get past that aspect, BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD is a stunning achievement for first time filmatists. In the age of found footage and m-mblecore it’s nice to see some rookies making a movie where they have to build a bunch of shit and create things and exert effort. It’s one of the best indie enviro-flood fantasy dramas starring a kid you’ll see for a while.