The raves surrounding “Beasts of the Southern Wild” have been buzzing for months, starting with its smash screenings at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals. It finally comes to Wichita on Friday.
The hype is justified. The film is a modest triumph. It defies explanation, but it’s a beautifully strange tone poem, part fable, part lyrical journey, but certainly dripping with emotion. And it’s all rooted in the astounding performance by Quvenzhane Wallis, who plays the film’s 6-year-old heroine.
Yes. Six years old! You’d think to compensate for such a young age that the role would be minimized with little dialogue, perhaps, or would rely on the child running from place to place, basically just hitting her marks. But Wallis is wonderfully naturalistic and fills her character with rage and wonder almost simultaneously. She is also the narrator for our story, and sets the tone — and conscience — for the film.
She plays Hushpuppy, who lives deep in the Delta bayou, far beyond the levee of southern Louisiana, in a community of off-the-grid eccentrics who adhere to their own unique lifestyle. They basically live in the swamp, so they don’t have many modern luxuries. But they revel in their rebel existences and do what they want, sometimes just partying at each other’s run-down homes. Wealth isn’t measured in material things; it’s measured in friendship and good times.
Hushpuppy and her father, Wink (a brilliantly strong Dwight Henry), live next to each other but have their own dilapidated trailer homes. Hushpuppy’s mother disappeared a long time ago, she says, matter of factly. But recollections in images show that she still longs for her.
One day, Hushpuppy wakes up ready for mealtime, which is usually marked by Wink ringing a bell. But she’s surprised to not find him anywhere. So she fends for herself — for days. Even covering for her father when the teacher at the local “school” offers to take her home, saying her daddy’s coming to get her.
She finally resorts to frying up cat food to eat. And as she does, she hears a noise. She runs out to see Wink in a hospital gown, obviously escaping from a medical clinic of some sort. He’s angry and in a bad mood.
From there, Wink’s health gets worse. So he pushes Hushpuppy to fend for herself, teaching her how to fish with her hands. He also gets increasingly harder on her, to toughen her up for the harsh world.
Then the teacher at school explains that a bad storm could be coming that would drown their existence. Because of environmental conditions, she says, the polar ice caps will melt, unleashing wild beasts that will come to hunt them all down. It’s a myth, of course, but one that Hushpuppy takes to heart.
So when Hushpuppy burns her trailer down in defiance of her father and a storm does begin to rage, she think she caused it, and the end of the world is her fault.
But when Wink’s health overwhelms him, Hushpuppy finally takes it on herself to sail the sea and find her mother, regardless of the conditions.
There is some out-there symbolism mixed in pertaining to the polar beasts, but it makes the film dream-like and childlike. It makes sense from Hushpuppy’s point of view.
And the performances, again, are spellbinding. It’s astonishingly the first time acting for Wallis, Henry and many of the other cast members. They make it all seem so real. Also credit first-time director Benh Zeitlin, in an assured debut. His vision is artful without being arty.
Camera work also gives the film a gritty reality, almost a documentary feel. And the film is so rich with a sense of place, we get a glimpse of a world we’ve never experienced.
There’s certainly never been a film hero like the pint-sized Hushpuppy. And there’s certainly never been a film like “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
It’s a powerful, profoundly touching journey that will leave you elated — not from a happy ending, but from having witnessed a strangely beautiful thing.