REVIEW: Beasts of the Southern Wild [2012]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 93 minutes | Release Date: June 27th, 2012 (USA)
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director(s): Benh Zeitlin
Writer(s): Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin / Lucy Alibar (stage play “Juicy and Delicious”)

“No cryin’, ya hear?”

Caught worlds away from industry and technological advancement, the tiny Louisiana Delta community coined The Bathtub exists inside its own fantastical arena of jovial poverty. Self-sufficient and fearful of those on the other side of the levee, these feral creatures subsist on the environment and teach their young how to carry on traditions uniquely their own. But as the adults attempt to ready the children for a hard life tempered only by alcoholic beverage and a boon of loudly crazed holidays, they can’t protect them from horrors beyond their control. As Mother Nature threatens to wash ‘home’ off the map and mortality risks destroying the intrinsic idea of security through family, the survivors unwilling to let their culture die at the hands of strangers must let the beasts within rise up to fight for one last breath.

Aligned with an innocent young girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), we enter The Bathtub as though travelers to an exotic country. Dirty, cruel, and above all else free, its inhabitants are forever in motion as the rooster’s call signifies feeding time for the animals and the day begins devoid of creature comforts we’ve become accustomed to on this side of civilization. These Beasts of the Southern Wild live in a self-exiled squalor of broken-down homes and trailers housing their most prized possessions—the memories of happier days trapped behind them. Hushpuppy introduces us to the day-to-day as well as the colorfully unhygienic neighbors forever with bottle in hand going about their business until the opportunity arrives for a savage dance of shrieking and fireworks. The looming destruction at the hand of nature’s fury becomes their greatest enemy.

After the excitement dies down, Hushpuppy awakens to silence in response to calls for Daddy. We realize now that what we’ve seen may not be the whole truth. Watching through this fanciful, alternatively educated girl’s eyes, the life around her becomes a cold, harsh place as evil approaches to take away the only life she’s known. And when her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), returns ill tempered in a hospital gown, all hell breaks loose as the storm they knew was coming rains down on those who refused to leave for dryer pastures. A naïve child with only the horror stories of polar icecaps melting to send them back to an ‘Ice Age’ when giant boar-like monsters called aurochs ruled ferociously, the destruction morning brings manifests into a post-apocalyptic wasteland they and their friends must save.

Already mother-less, watching her father’s worsening health plants seeds of the long-extinct prehistoric demons being thawed and reanimated to take her into the void. Without parents to sustain her, she would revert back to auroch food like those her age thousands of years ago. No longer human, no longer Hushpuppy, she would be helpless to a world closing in. Lost, afraid, and not quite as confident as Wink in living up to the duty of ‘King of The Bathtub’, this young girl must travel to the bright, blinking light across the water in order to reunite with a mother she’s only talked to through a soiled basketball jersey left behind. Unable to protect herself despite the tough love wrought by Wink at every turn, Hushpuppy’s journey for salvation puts her face to face with the approaching darkness brought atop her horned predators’ backs.

Directed by Benh Zeitlin and shot by Ben Richardson, Beasts of the Southern Wild envelops us with fiercely kinetic handheld camerawork. Portraying an America most believe doesn’t exist, we join Hushpuppy and her ragtag kin’s attempts to salvage their identity. We watch as Jean Battiste (Levy Easterly), Walrus (Lowell Landes), and Wink look to stop The Bathtub from drowning; Little Jo (Pamela Harper) keep the children safe and prevent the men from realizing their stupid ideas; and Hushpuppy try to reconcile the chaos surrounding her. Questions about life and death come into play as the concept of security is warped inside the minds of men refusing to seek assistance from outsiders. Wanting to preserve a way of life impossible on dry land, these beasts ensure their young grow a thick skin and the power to survive.

Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar‘s parable plays on how the Delta’s culture was almost wiped away by Hurricane Katrina and the plethora of storms ceaselessly pounding the area into submission. Instead of speaking through politics and hero-complexes of Northerners so far-removed that their attempts to help do everything but, the filmmakers place us into the mind of an impressionable girl whose world is crumbling. Unable to fully understand what is happening as her protector fades into oblivion, she can only conjure images of her own demise due to a lack of the independent strength necessary to survive. An existentialist commentary, the forces of nature crush her soul like the animals she once held to her ear with steady heartbeats rendered lifeless and still. Anxious, afraid, and alone, Hushpuppy must travel to the end of her world to find the courage to return.

With a sternly tumultuous performance from young Wallis desperately holding back the flood of emotions and tears brimming below the surface; Henry’s powerful turn as a man expressing love through brashly violent displays of authority in the hope they rub off on those close to giving up; and a gorgeous score from Zeitlin and Dan Romer, Beasts puts its audience through the wringer as The Bathtub wrestles to retain autonomy. Shifting from the reality of civilization misguidedly trying to save the world and the fantasy of a little girl’s mortality placing her dangerously on the cusp of a solitary abyss of suffering, we glimpse the preciousness of life forcing itself through the façade of armored creatures pretending feelings prove weakness. Through the unspoken love of a father and child, we watch humanity overcome obstacles to survive despite a Godless world’s attempts to consume it.

[1] Quvenzhane Wallis as “Hushpuppy” on the set of BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD. Photo Credit: Jess Pinkham
[2] Quvenzhane Wallis as “Hushpuppy” and Dwight Henry as “Wink” on the set of BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD. Photo Credit: Jess Pinkham
[3] Quvenzhane Wallis as “Hushpuppy” on the set of BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD. Photo By: Mary Cybulski

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