A Breathtaking Effort 

'Beasts of the Southern Wild' is a beautiful fantasy you'll hear a lot about come awards season

Does a place like The Bathtub really exist? There are certainly dirt-poor areas in the bayou near New Orleans, but do they celebrate a holiday every day? Do its residents all get along and get together for nightly feasts?

The odds are, no, places like The Bathtub don't exist. That's why we need someone to invent them.

Beasts of the Southern Wild uses an impending storm à la Hurricane Katrina and a kind of mawkish bayou backdrop to create one of the most beautiful fantasies in recent American cinema. The denizens of The Bathtub are poor, yet blissfully happy. Its most curious resident might be Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a 6-year-old girl who, in telling us her story, also reveals the spirit of the place she calls home.

Storm or not, dwellers of The Bathtub won't leave on their own; maybe they don't know how bad they have it, or maybe the truth is they don't have it bad at all, since they seem to enjoy every moment of every day. But the unavoidable fact of nature is that a storm is on its way, and it will ruin The Bathtub and likely kill many who live there should they stay.

Hushpuppy has her own house, a doublewide on stilts that no doubt washed to its current resting place during an earlier storm, and her father (Dwight Henry) lives in a similar trailer a few yards away. His boat is the bed of a truck, which we can also assume is a hurricane victim. Like everything else in their possession, the boat is a utilitarian solution to life in The Bathtub, and what they don't have, Hushpuppy and her father clearly don't need.

Working in unison with the literal storm clouds are more-figurative ones: Hushpuppy's father is not healthy, and we've seen enough movies to know that one condition often substitutes for another. To process these world-changing events, Hushpuppy imagines prehistoric creatures called aurochs—which she learned about because they're tattooed on her teacher's thigh—slowly closing in around her.

The fantastical nature of the story, seen through the eyes of this world-beater of a child, is a credit to director Benh Zeitlin, making his feature-film debut. When faced with an artistic decision here, Zeitlin always chooses something interesting, and often entirely original. There are moments when the angles we see or action falling out of focus is not intentional, but all the better; this is a world of unusual angles, one that is constantly out of focus.

The casting, however, is entirely in focus. Dwight Henry is not an actor. He owns a bakery in New Orleans. But his performance is deeply powerful, raw and unfiltered. He may not, from a technical standpoint, know what he's doing. But he knows his motivation, because in real life, he's a father of five, and he couldn't be any better.

Meanwhile, the hyperbole machine is already running on all cylinders for Quvenzhané Wallis. After her all-but-certain nomination is announced, you will read that she would be the youngest performer to win a competitive Academy Award. This film hangs on Hushpuppy's every word and every thought, and Wallis—underpants, rubber boots, unkempt hair, loud shrieks and all—is the perfect conduit for such an inventive piece of cinema.

This is a breathtaking, beautiful film. It's already raked in awards at Sundance and Cannes, and the accolades won't stop there. But more importantly, Beasts of the Southern Wild fundamentally challenges what it takes to be imaginative in the movies. At about the same time this was being filmed for less than $2 million around New Orleans, Battleship shot some footage near Baton Rouge. That film had a budget of nearly $210 million, and for all the effects it bought, not one of them was as special as anything in Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Rated PG-13 · 93 minutes · 2012
User Rating:
Official Site: beastsofthesouthernwild.com
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Producer: Michael Gottwald, Dan Janvey, Josh Penn, Philipp Engelhorn, Paul Mezey and Michael Raisler
Cast: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly, Lowell Landes, Pamela Harper, Gina Montana, Nicholas Clark and Jovan Hathaway


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What others are saying (10)

Seven Days Beasts of the Southern Wild Movie Review by Margot Harrison 08/08/2012
Style Weekly Movie Review: "Beasts of the Southern Wild." A child's imagination floods this sometimes confounding film. by Wayne Melton 07/24/2012
Colorado Springs Independent Talk about the passion: Beasts of the Southern Wild It's so compelling as a character study that it's somehow disappointing when it veers into obvious allegory. by Scott Renshaw 07/25/2012
7 more reviews...
Memphis Flyer Swept Away A Katrina-informed Delta fable is one of the year's most interesting films. by Chris Herrington 07/26/2012
The Coast Halifax Beasts of the Southern Wild A dream world with social, political and economic meaning by Molly Segal 07/26/2012
Charleston City Paper Don't believe the hype about Beasts of the Southern Wild Beasts of the Southern Wild is a gumbo of melting snow caps, fragile father-daughter relationships, locavorism, Katrina conspiracy theories, and giant prehistoric pigs. by Isaac Weeks 07/25/2012
East Bay Express Beasts of the Southern Wild Hushpuppy in Wonderland. by Kelly Vance 07/11/2012
Chicago Reader The haunting southern gothic Beasts of the Southern Wild Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild portrays life on a Louisiana floodplain by J.R. Jones 07/03/2012

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