Beasts of the Southern Wild a Stunning Debut
- Friday, June 29, 2012
Wink is a drunk, a state fueled by bitterness at the cruelty he’s faced, and that’s often expressed in anger and abuse toward Hushpuppy. Yet he is a complex character as well, because underneath that unforgiving exterior is the motive to make his daughter tough enough for the world that has beaten him down. He stresses anger and rage because those are the survival skills he knows. His meanness is his expression of love to Hushpuppy, though not limited to it.
That we sense this depth and feel compassion for Wink is to the credit of both Zeitlin’s direction and first-time actor (baker by trade) Dwight Henry. These complexities emerge primarily through portrayal and that is a real feat, especially considering Henry’s complete inexperience in the craft. Key moments of dialogue evoke that depth as well, from views philosophical and practical (like “My only purpose in life is to teach her how to make it”—a realization both hard and loving). It is a towering, unforgettable performance.
“They think we’re gonna drown down here. But we ain’t going nowhere.”
Equally remarkable as Hushpuppy is young Quvenzhané Wallis, especially since so many of the film’s big ideas are embodied in her. Her age provides an innocence that actually gives those ideas more authority, and Wallis imbues an effortless integrity into every thought and moment. She has a strength beyond her years.
Zeitlin depicts this fringe world not only with stark veracity but, at times, with ethereal beauty. It’s such an odd combination of styles that Zeitlin blends, the result of which feels like some highly impressionistic documentary. The flavors of realism are buoyed by real locales and a cast of locals. Zeitlin went so far as to let his amateurs be themselves, even when it meant completely changing how their roles were scripted. We feel that authenticity; it’s right there on the screen.
That realism is then transformed into the fantastical with bold strokes of imagination and invention. They begin subtlety with truck beds turned make-shift boats that sail down river, then to more heavily art-directed constructs like a roof converted into a survivors' floating pontoon, and most eerily the recurring metaphor of gigantic wild boars barreling through homes leaving death and destruction in their wakes.
“Strong animals know when your hearts are weak.”
When that metaphor becomes reality in a climactic confrontation, the result is one of the most striking images (and breathtaking moments) I’ve seen in years. It visualizes what the film is really all about: the courage to stand up to the beast, show it you’re not afraid, and even stare it down. Not out of righteous indignation but a simple conviction that every life matters.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a dark fairy tale that heightens reality in order to reveal it. In the end, it’s not just about survival from some environmental apocalypse but also the resurrection that emerges from it, in the lives of those willing to face the beasts and the children of those who, though they may have lost the fight, instilled a legacy.
“I see that I am a little piece of a big, big universe—and that makes it right.”
- Drugs/Alcohol Content: Drinking of beer and whiskey, inebriation, both individually and in a group.
- Language/Profanity: Four A-words, two S-words, two uses of the Lord’s name in vain, and two instances of the P-word feminine sexual slang used as an epithet for weakness.
- Sexual Content/Nudity: Women in lingerie slips and gowns, at a makeshift brothel (no nudity or sexuality). Bare back of a topless woman.
- Violence/Other: Dad slaps girl, knocks her down; also verbally abusive. Spilled gutted entrails of a dead animal. Conditions of extreme poverty are unsettling. Violent peril in the midst of a hurricane. A sick man coughs up blood.
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