Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild


Beasts of the Southern Wild

Cliches. Stereotypes. Tropes. Everyone can think of a few they can't stand. For me, some of the most cringeworthy in movies are voiceover narration (unless it's a Billy Wilder movie), small children with a Wisdom Beyond Their Years, and what Spike Lee has dubbed the "magical Negro." The film Beasts of the Southern Wild includes voiceover narration, spoken by a strangely wise six-year-old African-American girl ...and it is a lovely, wild and spellbinding film, a dark fairytale with a cruel realistic edge.

Sometimes a skilled filmmaker can twist tropes into the service of something original and fantastic. In this case, the filmmaker is Benh Zeitlen ... and this is is his first feature film. He co-wrote Beasts of the Southern Wild with playwright Lucy Alibar -- it was a Sundance Screenwriters Lab project. The movie won awards at both Sundance and Cannes, and has finally opened in Austin this week.

Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is a little girl living in a decrepit trailer somewhere in the South Louisiana bayous, an area nicknamed "the Bathtub" for its tendency to flood dangerously after major storms. Her father Wink (Dwight Henry) lives in a shack nearby; he can't stand to be in the trailer since Hushpuppy's mother "swam away." Hushpuppy hopes her mother will return. In the meantime, the girl is fascinated with the animals around her, and ties this in with stories she's heard about the ice caps melting, vividly imagining that this will unleash strange prehistoric creatures on her home.

What's unleashed on her home instead is a major storm, and the levees that protect larger and more moneyed communities increase the flooding in the Bathtub. Many families leave, but a handful of stubborn folks decide to stick it out. Hushpuppy's world changes again, and again, and again. And the story never makes a false step -- even its ventures into magical realism seem believable and authentic.

The weight of the film rests on Quvenzhané Wallis, in her first acting role, who is riveting. And her voiceover narration doesn't repeat the obvious, as is annoyingly true in so many other movies. She's well supported by Dwight Henry, who finesses a complex role as her father, changing the audience's attitude toward him considerably from scene to scene. Gina Montana, who plays Hushpuppy's teacher, is also a standout. Most of the cast are making their film debuts, not that you would know that by watching them.

Beasts of the Southern Wild blends a grim reality with streaks of magical realism, without sinking into sentimentality. The movie is from Hushpuppy's point of view and her world is a fascinating one, but not without its horrors -- at the beginning of the film, when her father disappears, she worries she may have to eat the pets if he doesn't return. A setting near the end is depicted with a sense of almost jarring realism, followed by a sequence that feels mythical and unreal. And yet it all blends beautifully.

And speaking of stereotypes I can't stand ... Can I say how refreshing it is to see South Louisianians portrayed in a relatively human manner, compared to the simply terrible stereotypes we've suffered through watching over the years? There is no trace of the wretched "Cajun" characters that Hollywood assumes populates the area, with accents that appear to be stolen from Justin Wilson and Adam Sandler. The actors' cadences are realistic and musical and almost made me homesick -- in particular that of the boat captain near the end.

As random as this might sound, when the movie ended I realized that Beasts of the Southern Wild was everything I had wanted Terry Gilliam's disappointing Tideland to be: Lush and painful and wonderful and with a fantasy element that augmented the reality of the film's setting, with an amazing heroine at its center. And speaking of neglected young-girl heroines, wouldn't this make a helluva double-feature with the Zellner brothers' Kid-Thing? Both movies focus on girls in the wild, who are forces of nature in very different ways.

Excellent review. I bet this

Excellent review. I bet this one was tough to write, I'd read an interview with Zeitlen where he said it was an unpitchable script.

I thoroughly enjoyed this movie and feel fortunate to have seen it. Such a beautiful film.

Your review of the review

Excellent comment on the review. I agree totally and the movie was indeed a beautiful film. For those of us who live in Louisiana, this comes the closest to telling you how some people live where the wetlands are disappearing and that it does have an impact and will on all of us eventually.

no accents?

I just saw the movie and was taken aback that none of the actors used/had accents? Do the people whom live in this are actually have NO accent? PLEASE clarify. Thank you.