Captivating. Moving. Poignant. Emotional.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild,” directed by Benh Zeitlin, is a movie infused with passion, both from the actors and the brains behind the film’s production. It debuted at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and it’s gained a spirited and growing fanbase ever since. Its vibrant child star, Quvenzhane Wallis, was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award, and the film itself was recently nominated for an Academy Award in three other categories: Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. It’s easy to see why.
The movie is set in a makeshift community in the bayou of Louisiana. It’s called the “Bathtub”, and it’s faced with a constant threat of flooding. This tight-knit cast of characters is mostly neglected by the “civilized” folk who live on the other side of the levee, but they don’t see that as an obstacle to their well-being. What other people call poverty they call everyday life, and they embrace it.
Wallis, who plays Hushpuppy, lives in the Bathtub with her father Wink, played by newcomer Dwight Henry. She’s motherless, her father’s health is declining and he verges on being abusive. But Hushpuppy has a brilliantly curious and strong mind, and she’s determined to make sense of her seemingly small life and find where she connects to the big world outside.
And boy, does she face some obstacles. There are situations I could never imagine being put in — mega storms, accidental house fires, a constantly shifting home life — but Hushpuppy’s resilience is always there as a cornerstone of the movie. She finds connections between people and the universe that most kids would overlook, and it’s truly inspiring. The movie even toys with the idea of mythical creatures that seem to be created straight from Hushpuppy’s 5-year-old mind. This was one portion of the movie that wasn’t as clear to me, but maybe that means it deserves a second look.
Wallis and Henry do a phenomenal job in their roles. They were both newcomers from Louisiana before being cast in the film. Henry, specifically, was recruited while he still worked in a mom-and-pop restaurant near New Orleans. He had a spark the director was looking for, and he brought a certain rawness to every scene he was in. It’s quite impressive. His acting undoubtedly drew on his own experience in Hurricane Katrina — he was there in neck-high waters, and he felt the emotional toll of that disaster. And Wallis is spunky and fearless. She is someone you can’t help but root for.
The film is also shot beautifully, with energy and whimsical imagery packed into each sequence. It’s certainly not a comedy, and it’s not a feel-good flick, but it has elements of both woven into the plot. You feel like you’re dipping your toes in something a little deeper, like you’re in Hushpuppy’s young but wise shoes trying to figure out the world. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is refreshing, daring, heartbreaking and magnificent.
The Pendulum‘s rating: 4/5 stars
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