Beasts of the Southern Wild
Release date: June 27. 2012
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Play by: Lucy Alibar
Screenplay by: Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin
Cast: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry
Beasts of the Southern Wild wastes no time in dropping audiences right into the midst of an isolated and unfamiliar world. Surrounded by nothing but water in the Bathtub, an extremely poor community off the coast of Louisiana, a little girl named Hushpuppy (Wallis) lives with her father Wink (Henry). As her father’s health declines due to a mysterious illness, and the world around her begins to fall apart, Hushpuppy must learn to survive through these troubled times in order to remain in her beloved home.
This loose synopsis of the film does no justice to the jumbled story that director Benh Zeitlin co-wrote with Lucy Alibar. The tale they weave does a marvelous job at capturing the culture of this tight-knit community, but its reliance on a child’s narration rather than a cohesive story disappoints. Telling Hushpuppy’s story through her point of view was a smart decision, as the mind of a six-year-old often finds ways to intertwine reality and fantasy. It is because of this that we have some of the film’s greatest sequences, featuring prehistoric creatures called aurochs that aimlessly roam the land and interact with the citizens of the Bathtub.
Not only are the aurochs seemingly aimless beings, but so are practically all the aspects of the film. Amateur director Zeitlin and cinematographer Ben Richardson find themselves caught between crafting magical sequences and being overly reliant on shaky cam to further remind audiences that this is a relatively low budget film. It is hard to see what is so visually stunning about this film, as the scenes that truly impress are few and far between.
One scene in particular, in which Hushpuppy interacts with a dancer at a brothel, offers one of the most touching and expertly directed moments throughout. It’s a shame that the rest couldn’t live up to the few remarkable scenes, as not even the fireworks in the opening credits shine as brightly as those. At times it feels like Zeitlin only cared to emulate Malick’s fluid storytelling, but found himself neck deep in a story as muddled as the waters surrounding the Bathtub. At the very least, he understands that music is an important factor. The score he composed alongside Dan Romer compliments the film beautifully.
Quvenzhané Wallis, the lucky unknown talent who snagged the role of Hushpuppy, does a fine job. At six years old, it’s a wonder to see her guiding the film, even if she isn’t given much to work with. It is easy to see the limitations of her performance through the abundance of narration, but her ability to switch from a calm demeanor to a feral show of intensity is something that has started her career off with a bang.
Wink’s callous treatment of his daughter throughout his fading health is often unwarranted, so much so that she wishes for his death in a moment of rage. It is hard to sympathize with his tough love approach to raising Hushpuppy, but Dwight Henry’s performance takes the character further than its writing might have allowed for someone else.
“The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right,” says Hushpuppy. The right fit for these characters is living freely in this chaotic world, and it is in them that we find the true Beasts of the Southern Wild.
*Originally published in The Beacon newspaper