“I hope you die!” And after you die, I’ll go to your grave and eat birthday cake all by myself.”
Beasts of the Southern Wild reminds me why I love films that value imagination and raw talent over high-budget blockbusters. Superheroes don’t need to come from Marvel comic books, and six-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis delivers a debut performance that sets the Oscar bar high.
John Cooper, Sundance Festival Director, suggested that indie filmmakers are more keen on taking risks with native, local talent as opposed to picking from the mainstream crop of Hollywood actors. With the budget most indies are given, unknown actors obviously make the risk more affordable. And guess what? The risk is paying off. The directorial debut of Benh Zeitlin is bold and fearless in delivery. Newcomers Quvenzhané Wallis (Hushpuppy) and Dwight Henry (Wink) proved their lack of acting experience didn’t hinder their ability. Henry auditioned for a role after Zeitlin posted a flyer in his bakery in the 7th Ward of New Orleans. Wallis, a native of Houma, Louisiana, fibbed her age in order to be considered (Wallis was five when she auditioned; the minimum age was set at six).
Beasts is not a film that is easy to summarize. It’s an apocalyptic vision, a magical fable, an environmental drama, modern culture vs. counterculture, a coming-of-age story, a sci-fi thriller and a father-daughter relationship all rolled up in an hour and a half. It’s a lot to digest. And it may be complicated to explain or comprehend at first, but what should be universally understood is the emotionally charged force it slaps you with. You’re going to feel the sense of empowerment this small-budget film uniquely creates, you’ll remember the magic and imagination you had as a child and you’re going to cry.
Beasts of the Southern Wild, based on the one-act play Juicy and Delicious, follows the narration of six-year-old Hushpuppy who lives in a below sea level community outside of New Orleans called “the Bathtub.” The Bathtub is a bayou-inspired Waterworld where a group of counterculture folk live off the land, uphold the notions of true Darwinism and eat plenty of seafood. When an all-consuming storm hits, a series of events begin to unravel–Wink contracts an unknown ailment that has him coughing up blood, the remaining survivors of the Bathtub attempt to rebuild their homes (all while upholding the camaraderie they had pre-storm), a shift in nature unravels (here’s where you have to suspend your disbelief) melting the polar ice caps and unleashing enormous, prehistoric creatures called aurochs. While this mass-upheaval begins to unfold, Hushpuppy goes out looking for her estranged mother.
There’s this unyielding sense of pride from the people of the Bathtub. They may lead a primitive existence, one that becomes a threat post-storm, but the separation they have from modern culture across the levee is hard not to appreciate. Their mantra of “we’re not leaving, this is our home” was overwhelmingly relatable as a local New Orleanian.
Keep on eye on Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry. Award prediction website GoldDerby ranks Quvenzhané Wallis fourth in the running in the Best Actress category for the Academy Awards. If Wallis receives this nomination, she will become the youngest Best Actress nominee at the age of nine. If she wins, she’ll become the youngest winner of any acting category in Academy history. Go girl.
New York Times critic A.O. Scott sums it up perfectly.
“Hushpuppy is an American original, a rambunctious blend of individualism and fellow feeling. In other words, she is the inheritor of a proud literary and artistic tradition, following along a crooked path traveled by Huckleberry Finn, Scout Finch, Eloise (of the Plaza), Elliott (from “E.T.”) and other brave, wild, imaginary children. These young heroes allow us, vicariously, to assert our innocence and to accept our inevitable disillusionment when the world falls short of our ideals and expectations..”