Heartfelt, devastating, beautiful and uplifting, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is undoubtedly the best film of the year so far. After winning top honors at both the Sundance and Cannes film festivals earlier this year, “Southern Wild” has finally marched into theaters and is guaranteed to captivate audiences with its raw power.
The story is set in a whimsical town on the Louisiana coast called “the Bathtub,” which is more or less a character within itself. Brimming with people from all walks of life, it is a tight-knit community with a strong sense of place ingrained in each of its inhabitants. They drink their fill, teach their kids the basics of survival and stand firm in the face of danger—even if it means a violent hurricane.
Hushpuppy (newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis) is a young girl growing up in poverty with her alcoholic father in the Bathtub. Adventurous, feisty and inquisitive, Hushpuppy practically raises herself in the wake of her mother’s mysterious desertion. After a terrible storm ravages their small community, Hushpuppy and the Bathtub’s inhabitants try to rebuild and fight to keep what they once held so dear.
The film shares loose parallels with 2005’s tragic Hurricane Katrina, but focuses more on universal themes and human pathos than the catastrophe itself. Many inhabitants decide to stay in the Bathtub despite the impending storm and refuse to leave even after their entire community is underwater. They try holding on to the last thread of their home that they have left, but sadly learn they cannot shut out the modern world forever.
The most interesting dynamic within the narrative is between Hushpuppy and her father Wink (Dwight Henry). He is distant and contentious with his daughter—continually reminding her to “be a man” and reiterating that he will not always be there to look after her. Despite his severity, one can feel his love and compassion for Hushpuppy. They share a fascinating bond that is only made more heartrending by the outstanding performances from Wallis and Henry.
Wallis, a mere 6-years-old when the film was shot, gives the best performance on-screen this year. Without a single word, she can break your heart through the overflowing emotions that constantly flood her eyes. Although she tries so hard to be fearless, her Hushpuppy is innocent and defenseless to the hurdles thrown her way. That a child so young can exude so much depth is unbelievable, and speaks great volumes about Wallis and director Benh Zeitlin. Even though awards should not be the sole measure of a great performance, it would be a crime if Wallis’ work went unnoticed this winter.
Praise should be given to the entire cast, which is wholly comprised of non-professional actors. Henry, for example? He owned a bakery across the street from the “Southern Wild” casting studio before he decided to audition. The fresh-faced filmmaking team should also be commended for creating art that not only wrenches your emotions but enchants your senses as well.
“Beasts” is an absolute visual feast, with its rich Southern backdrop and adept use of the handheld camera. The camera often serves as a window into Hushpuppy’s perspective, where the world is seen in all its enormity, mystique and jubilation. Set to a rousing, poignant score co-written by Zeitlin, the movie feels much larger than the low-budget indie it is.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a unique masterpiece — it easily exceeds the huge expectations that were set by the thunderous hype, awards and critical raves. It is a stirring glimpse into the human spirit that tells a genuinely powerful story. If you still remain unconvinced, try and hold back the tears during the film’s last 15 minutes. Like the very aurochs that loom in Hushpuppy’s vivid imagination, one needs to see “Beasts of the Southern Wild” in order to truly believe.