Beasts of the Southern Wild is a determined début from director Behn Zeitlin; Contending with her hot-tempered father and his fading health, melting ice-caps that flood her precious yet fragile bayou community, The Bathtub, and threaten to unleash destructive ancient beasts, six-year-old Hushpuppy must learn the ways of courage and love.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is bursting with expression, telling a streamlined and sincere fable through memorable imagery and performances that feel both commendably organic and skilfully considered. It draws upon an impressive creative confidence regardless of budget and so has a resourceful feel that compliments the narrative, characters and setting perfectly. This outcome and approach is frankly refreshing amid the myriad of bloated retreads and franchises currently weighing down much of the film industry. Although it has several notes of fantasy Beasts remains a performance lead film, in his protagonist director Zeitlin has sprung a mini-tour-de-force upon the screen with Quvenzhane Wallis as our heroine, Hushpuppy, essentially a 6 year old survivalist with huge burdens to bare. Wallis is simply brilliant, no notes of John Hughes type cute kiddie in a tight spot, the actress plays her character rightfully strong, restrained and as a young but stark realist. Whether she is drawing her story so she is remembered after she is gone, flexing her ”guns” to a baying group of merry adults or is told she will be ‘King of The Bathtub’ Wallis believes it with tough charm and wholly convinces.
Getting a strong and convincing performance out of a child is no mean feat and Behn Zeitlin displays a deft hand at this. As adorable Wallis is, and she is to the tenth power, her hard headed idealism as Hushpuppy makes you admire her. She is ably supported by a passionate Dwight Henry as her temperamental but loving father Wink; in fact although the film rests so much on Wallis’ small but sturdy shoulders the scant supporting cast as a whole make scenes lively and empathetic with a reassuring warmth. With it’s themes the film evokes some other films in tone; notably The Neverending Story and Spirited Away, albeit with a less fairy tale aesthetic. The understanding for the natural world order also channels the Studio Ghibli ethos, as well as several of the anime studio’s efforts in marrying mythology with a perilous coming of age tale. Beasts of the Southern Wild is vibrant and immersive with detail that elevates the power of it’s scenes, with aptly intimate hand held camera work, wonderfully textured set design and a beautiful soundtrack alongside a respect for natural sound and thoughtful silence. Audibly with well placed narration from Hushpuppy the film is reflective and moving without ever broaching saccharine.
The one flaw here is beyond the screen, the 12A rating is a genuine shame, as young children in the UK will be less able to view this wonderfully imaginative film, especially since there really isn’t anything in the film that has the power to corrupt or cause nightmares.
Putting aside the film’s inevitable wooing of art-house audiences, Beasts of the Southern Wild is best taken for what it is, a strong and imaginative experience that is heartfelt in it’s simplicity, often funny and unique and featuring a riveting central performance with just the right amount of edge. At once angry and romantic, sad and triumphant, I wholeheartedly look forward to seeing more from both director and its young lead.