By – Edward Boff
First thing to get
clear; any resemblance to the film that the marketing for Beasts of the
Southern Wild is promoting and the actual film is purely coincidental. The posters and trailers make this look
a lot like feel-good fare like Slumdog
Millionaire. It definitely
isn’t; it’s pretty grim in a lot of ways.
Taking its cue from several recent disasters, it is all about the
shattering of cherished world views.
It’s also a bold, brave and brilliant exploration of big events through
the eyes of those barely able to comprehend them and one of the better
independent dramas of the year!
Somewhere very deep in the backwaters (literally!) of Louisiana
is the shanty town known as the Bathtub where six year old Hush Puppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives. Yeah, the Bathtub doesn’t have any of
those modern fashionable things like public health, farmable land or flood
defences, but it’s OK, they don’t need any of that; her daddy Wink (Dwight Henry) says so. Even with a storm rolling in that’s so
bad everyone else is leaving, Wink’s got the right idea in keeping him and Hush
Puppy there, he can handle it… right?
In a tale like this, where it is told from the perspective
of a child, the ability of the main child star is what’ll make or break the
film. Well, Quvenzhané Wallis is a
name to remember (though that’s quite a task), because she is truly
extraordinary in the lead. The key
to her character is the fact that she’s basically been forced through
circumstance to come up with her own patchwork worldview and moral compass
through bits and pieces seen, heard and observed from the Bathtub and its
inhabitants. This way of thinking
and how she applies it to the situation she and the other residents find
themselves in is perfectly summed up through Wallis’ sections of narration and
her fixed determined stare she gives everyone. Look (um, hear) past the pretty thick accent that occasionally
obscures her lines and it’s a performance that marks (hopefully) the start of a
truly special career.
The most striking aspect of Hush Puppy’s view on the
disaster though is her visions of huge beasts, aurochs, stampeding across the
landscape. It’s probably one of
the main things about this film that many people will be discussing, probably
in direct comparison to, say, Pan’s
Labyrinth. Both have a young
protagonist viewing a harsh world in terms of fantastical creatures, but both
approach it very differently. In
Pan’s Labyrinth, it’s an escapist fantasy; in BotSW, it’s more a metaphor for how the world has been turned
upside down by huge, implacable force beyond the lead’s comprehension. However you view these scenes though,
they certainly are striking (and likely to please one’s inner Godzilla fan in parts!) and they will
stick with you long after seeing this.
But don’t be confused into thinking they are the
“Beasts” of the title.
As the film goes on, there can be little doubt as to what, or rather
who, it really refers. Now, events
like Hurricane Katrina and the recession cast a very long shadow over the
film’s story. It can be easy to
make it yet another criticism on the American government’s mismanaged responses
to these, but the film’s writers Lucy
Alibar and Benh Zeitlin (also
director) are cleverer than that.
There are definite moments when “The Man” comes off less than
smelling of roses but it’s more than balanced by the real source of the
Bathtub’s residents’ predicament; their own attitudes! Most of those who stay through the
storm, Hush Puppy’s daddy Wink most of all, are actively opposed to the modern
world (though admittedly that’s probably down to the way it’s treated them). As such, they stubbornly refuse to
leave the life they created, what little there is of it. This is taken far beyond the point when
it’s blindingly obvious that the whole thing is FUBARed and they should just go
and accept outside help. They stay
in continuing and escalating poverty, standing by the ideal of the “Noble
Savage”; they are the titular Beasts. One can almost see Wink’s character arc as Monty Python’s
“What have the Romans ever done for us” sketch played for tragedy.
This review has barely scratched the surface of why this
film works as well as it does.
From the adoption of apocalypse movie imagery (some of this wouldn’t
look out of place in Mad Max!) to
the way the story smartly avoids going into the overly sentimental territory it
could have easily ended up in. There’s so much to talk about, but it’s far
better to stop reading about it, and start discovering it for yourself. It’s not quite the absolute masterpiece
many other critics are praising it as.
It does drag somewhat in its last act and some of the allegory and
dialogue is a bit too blunt. But
there’s certainly more than enough food for thought to get one’s teeth into,
wrapped in a well-acted feature film debut for a lot of very promising new
talent. Highly recommended!