Remarkable in every possible way–story, acting, fusion of reality and fantasy, locations–the beautifully realized Beasts of the Southern Wild has been years in development and tells a tale you’ve never seen or heard before. It will keep you frozen in your seat as the final credits roll.
In fact, this is one of the very few movies I’ve ever seen in Hawaii in which a large, appreciative audience stayed to watch those final credits all the way through. Maybe their questions were like mine. Where did this improbable movie come from, and from what amazingly committed filmmakers?
Our main character, a true heroine, is a six-year-old African American called Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis, chosen from 500 aspirants) living with her complex father in a small, boisterous Black, White, and Cajun community in “The Bathtub,” a lower bayou patch of threatened land on the “wrong side of the levee” in the Gulf of Mexico. These few people, dirt-poor and tenacious, are determined to stay with their little patch of land, no matter what, in their ramshackle houses and their commixture of animals and chickens, celebrating with moonshine and their newest cache of seafood raided from the levee. Always threatened by storms yielding up floods and destruction, these people don’t come any tougher than Hushpuppy’s father Wink (Dwight Henry).
At first Wink seems extremely unkind to his daughter, yelling at her, pushing her this way and that. It is only a little later–and this movie is that real rarity, a story that just keeps becoming better as it goes along–that we understand that Wink, seriously ill, is trying to toughen up his daughter so she can survive without him. Wink and Hushpuppy are real forces of nature: tough, loud, resilient, smart, combative. Both are played by non-professionals–but you’ve never seen such “performances.” We seem to be watching real hardscrabble life being lived by the kind of people we’ve never heard of before.
Hushpuppy narrates this story–it’s not dialogue-heavy–according to what she’s experienced (her mother has abandoned her) and the mythology she’s overheard (that in its earliest history The Bathtub was dominated by giant prehistoric beasts). Hushpuppy tells us that every piece of the world, including the Bathtub, is necessary for the world, the universe–and should be celebrated.
And we watch as Bathtub residents take care of each other, pretend they will always be together, even as Gulf waters rise, even as a storm and subsequent flood kill most of their animals, destroy most of their buildings and homes. Halfway through this film and then again two-thirds of the way through two profound changes occur–really profound. (You’ll not hear from us what they are.) But let it be said that the final third of this movie could not be better; and it is only then we realize how ambitious and how amazing this story has been from the beginning.
As Hushpuppy, Quvenzhane Wallis gives the best child’s performance this writer has ever seen in a film. When we first meet the kid, she is forever picking up some living creature, holding it up to her ear, and listening as if it were the pulse of the universe. She might be right. In an age of canned or embalmed movies, re-boots and the formulaic, this movie is alive, is the real thing. It has a heartbeat.