Despite a tendency to glamorize poverty and an often strained effort at profundity, Benh Zeitlin’s first feature, Beasts of the Southern Wild serves as a reminder of the poverty and its consequences that exist beneath the layers of affluence in modern society. A mixture of kitchen-sink realism and magical fantasy, the film is filled with colorful characters, natural disasters reminiscent of Katrina, and puzzling allegories. In spite of its multi-level ambitions, however, it succeeds mainly when it focuses on basic emotions: the love of a little girl for her father, the experience of community, and the courage of people unafraid of confronting big challenges.
Winner of the Camera d’Or at Cannes and numerous awards at Sundance, Beasts of the Southern Wild is, first and foremost, a story of two characters, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), a tenacious six-year old girl and her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), a heavy drinker who is suffering from a serious blood disease. Set in the marshlands of the Gulf Coast in a fictional community called “The Bathtub,” and shot with a shaky hand-held camera, father and daughter live in makeshift housing in squalid conditions. Hushpuppy, however, thinks that her home is “pretty,” and Wink says he would not want to live elsewhere.
Separated by a levee from the “other side,” communal activities seem to be little more than drinking and partying. Unfortunately, in his depiction of those who are poor but happy, Zeitlin tends to make poverty colorful and a unique kind of fun, not very convincing for those whose homes and belongings were washed away in the Katrina flood. Since Hushpuppy’s mama “swam away”, Wink wants to teach his daughter to be self-sufficient and presumably to fend for herself after he’s gone, something the child welfare agencies might have something to say about. To that end, he is a hard taskmaster and, with his macho attitude, wants to make the little girl into “a man.” Disappearing for several days and leaving Hushpuppy alone is apparently part of her training.
Father-daughter relationship, however, in spite of some of the more volatile scenes, can be playful as when they shoot off firecrackers together and take turns throwing things inside the house. Though the family drama is the main part of the film, peripheral elements exist alongside, including the onset of a horrendous storm that forces the residents to leave in boats, though many vow to remain and avoid forced relocation. Though Beasts of the Southern Wild is, on the whole, a compelling and involving film, it’s ambitions to provide a broader context do not always work. In a seeming reference to global warming, glaciers in the South Pole melt, freeing giant extinct Aurochs (wild boars) to charge across North America and head towards the Gulf Coast, culminating in a moving scene of confrontation, but the inclusion of these elements feel inorganic.
Beasts of the Southern Wild can mostly be appreciated as a testament to the importance of community, the value of courage in the face of crisis, and a child’s overriding need for love. Reminiscent of the films of Terence Malick, it is filled with Hushpuppy’s spiritual voiceovers, contemplating her place in the universe and how everything fits together. If the film remains in our memory, however, it will not necessarily be for its message but for the amazing performances of Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry. Though she has little dialogue, Wallis’ facial expressions speak volumes and her piercing eyes tell us more about her place in the universe than all of her philosophical voiceovers.
©2012 Howard Schumann
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