Beasts of the Southern World
Time: 93 minutes
Director: Benn Zeitlin
Cast: Dwight Henry, Quvenzhane Wallis
Released: 13 September, 2012
This widely acclaimed film is set in an area south of New Orleans, on a low-lying island, appropriately named The Bathtub. In a flood, water is trapped behind a long levee, causing this region to fill like a bathtub, rather than preventing the water from entering.
In a decaying, impoverished community on the island lives 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) and her father, Wink (Dwight Henry). As a family unit, the two have a contrary relationship, living in different homes and frequently bickering, while bound by a strong, generally protective love. The damaged Wink knows he won’t always be around to care for Hushpuppy so he tries to teach her to be self-sufficient, leaving her on her own for long periods, and distancing himself from her. When a severe storm hits the region, the inhabitants seem to be facing disaster, and for Hushpuppy, she must also deal with Wink’s deteriorating health and mental well-being.
Director Benn Zeitlin, who also co-wrote the screenplay, used the work of his friend, Lucy Alibar, as inspiration for this poetic tale. It is also his first feature film. Based on a play Alibar had written, Zeitlin adapted the story as he went along, changing aspects of it right through the casting and shooting. He works with a mix of artists and filmmakers based in Louisiana called Court 13, and their aim is to make movies about unlikely communities. In that, they have certainly succeeded and this film is strikingly original and fresh.
Credit is due for the courage shown by Zeitlin, his crew and cast. With a small budget and given the challenging locations, the shoot must have been incredibly taxing. Hand held cameras are used, both for ease of handling and to keep costs down, but this has resulted in scenes that are almost impossible to watch, as there is so much movement and distraction occurring.
While I have very mixed feelings about Beasts of the Southern Wild, one thing that is not debatable is the talent and incredible performance of Quvenzhane Wallis. After seeing more than four thousand other children, she turned up to audition, aged only 5 at the time, and immediately convinced the casting crew that she had the ability to carry the weight of the film’s main character on her tiny shoulders. And does she ever! Completely inhabiting the role, Quvenzhane IS Hushpuppy and she is mesmerising. Similarly, Dwight Henry was discovered working at the local bakery, and once chosen for the film, his rehearsal sessions took place in the bakery while he prepared the pastries, in the early hours of each morning! Other cast members were also selected from New Orleans locals, most of whom had no acting experience at all.
This is a raw, mishmash of a film, with some wonderful elements but also a lack of coherence, irritating camera work and, occasionally, a weird and uncomfortable sense of superiority, which seems totally contrary to the filmmakers’ intentions. Many are describing it as one of 2012’s best, but I could not connect with, or be especially moved by, its storyline.
2 and 1/2 stars.