Based on the stage play “Juicy and Delicious” by Lucy Alibar, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is an existential, cinematic poem that deftly weaves the fantastic within a harsh reality. The film translates smoothly to the screen with the direction of Benh Zeitlin and the talent of an extraordinary cast.
Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) is a 6-year-old girl born and raised in The Bathtub, a small bayou community cut off from the industrial world. Living with her hot-headed father, Wink (Dwight Henry), Hushpuppy is groomed to be a survivor, and sees life as a black-and-white portrait of natural selection. When Wink’s health takes a turn for the worse and a storm floods The Bathtub, Hushpuppy must aid in the rehabilitation of her community as she searches for her mother, faces the arrival of the ancient aurochs and discovers her place in the universe.
First-time actress Wallis is endearing as Hushpuppy. Wallis capitalizes on the innocence of her age, while maintaining an inner strength and subtle wisdom about her character. Hushpuppy’s narration in “Beasts” serves to supplement the development of her character as well. The bluntness and factuality with which Hushpuppy states her perspective of life is both naïve and disconcerting, evoking a paternal concern only a child could. Henry is convincing as Wink, temperamental, proud and prone to aggression. Even with the unpredictability of an embittered alcoholic, Henry’s portrayal of Wink leaves little doubt of his character’s good intentions and tough love for his daughter.
Debuting director Zeitlin channels a similar spirit to that of Spike Jonze’s 2009 adaptation of “Where the Wild Things Are,” emphasizing a sense of freedom, strength and adventure. However, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” differs in its major focus on the present state of Hushpuppy’s reality: The fantasy of the film plays only a small, but significant, role. The aurochs, the one truly fantastical element of the movie, serve as slight antagonists and parallels to The Bathtub community, representing the savagery and relentlessness of survivalism.
Zeitlin captures the film in an almost documentary-esque way. At times, the cinematography is shaky, creating a sense of actuality and excitement, but Zeitlin never fails to remind the audience of the movie’s convergence of fiction and reality. The film’s pace is slow, but engaging, and the emotion is palpable. The conceptual complexity of “Beasts” echoes throughout the ironically simple and allegorical dialogue of the film, necessitating audience interpretation. The desire to be loved, the desire to be remembered, the desire to do more than exist beyond the small frame of evolution are all portrayed beautifully on the screen.
Zeitlin’s direction and Alibar’s writing have garnered a film that explores the ideas of extinction, truth of reality and questions the similarities between man and beast, all through the eyes of a child. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is not so much a story of adventure as it is a story of identity and revelation. The film is a wonderful testament to humanity’s will to survive and the ever-evolving knowledge through which it remains.
Speakeasy Rating: A
“Beasts of the Southern Wild”
Starring Quvenzhane Wallis, Dwight Henry and Gina Montana
Rated PG-13 for thematic material including child imperilment, some disturbing images, language and brief sensuality