On this day in film history, June 27, 2012, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” was released in USA theaters with much fanfare, following a buzzy Sundance Film Festival world premiere where the film picked up both the Grand Jury Prize and the Cinematography Award, en route to Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director (Benh Zeitlin), Best Actress (Quvenzhané Wallis) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin).
Ultimately an ode to human resilience and self-reliance, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” may initially feel a little scattered, especially if you aren’t already familiar with the story; however by the second act, it all starts to come together and make sense. But what’s actually kind of interesting is that, without giving the plot away, there’s a structural chaos early on that is followed by a blissful narrative. And as the film progresses into the second and third acts, there’s a reversal of that – the film’s structure seems to become much more orderly, while the narrative amplifies the tragedy.
But it’s the kind of film one would expect to see in huge doses every year at the Sundance Film Festival – an independent film (both in budget and spirit) that manages to challenge, astonish and inspire audiences.
Taking place in a fictional bayou village on a sinking landscape in Southern Louisiana called the Bathtub, where unadulterated joy is of most importance to the diverse group of characters who live there, even as it fills with water and its shores sink away in front of them, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (BOTSW) is grand in scope, and certainly ambitious for a film of its budget class.
In this forgotten but defiant bayou community that seems to be completely cut off from the rest of the world by an expansive levee, 6-year old Hushpuppy (played wonderfully by then newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis) is faced with more than any child her age should ever have to handle at any single time: her mother died a long time ago, and she now lives with her beloved father Wink (played by Dwight Henry – another newcomer at the time), an unpredictable firecracker of a man who may have actually been happier if she were a boy (they arm wrestle, drink together, he repeatedly tells her “she’s the man,” is physical with her in the way a father would be to a son, and more), regularly instructing her on the importance of independence and self-reliance – essentially, survival as the world crumbles around them.
They live on the same compound, but under different roofs: him in a dilapidated shed; she in a trailer sitting on two oil drums, often left to her own devices, surrounded by a variety of semi-feral animals. Their communication (father and daughter) is frank and might seem uncaring initially, but there’s clearly a connection, an understanding and a mutual love and respect between them.
Existing just a step or two away from what we call reality, BOTSW will likely be best classified as magical realism – an apocalyptic comedy/tragedy about a little “beast” of a child, wise and courageous beyond her years, who has to find the strength to live and thrive at what is essentially the end of the world.
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The audience is firmly planted in this world through the perspective of this singular, curious little girl, and thus its success depends entirely on the young non-actress asked to fill the character’s tiny, but simultaneously massive shoes. And Quvenzhane is a miniature force of nature with a natural onscreen charisma that’ll charm even the most brutal.
She’s a natural here; and her performance only seems to get better as the film progresses, and more is required of both her and the character she plays, as the story takes a tragic turn, presenting her with an even heavier burden to bear.
While there’s certainly a plot, I would say that of most importance here is the crafting of an energy, a feeling, a mood, brought about by the film’s combination of its sparkly cinematography, energetic handheld camera, immaculate production design, epic, sprawling soundtrack and believable performances by a group of non-actors.
There’s what I’d call a carefree goodness about these people, despite the circumstances they face. They’re like a ragtag group of humans (and other animals) of varying ages, gender, cultural backgrounds and personalities, who seem to have created this otherworldly place just for themselves, closed off from the rest of human civilization, wanting nothing more than to just be left alone.
So there’s this ethereal quality to the film, but it’s still grounded in a reality we all would recognize. It’s as if director Benh Zeitlin has created what he may see as an ideal world in the village called the Bathtub, where life’s ills can simply be washed away down a drain.
Ultimately, this *feeling* and Zeitlin’s own romanticism, are what drives the narrative.
Filled with whimsy, BOTSW also packs an emotional punch. There’s humor, joy, beauty, tragedy, hope and a spirit that moves. With a budget that was a fraction of mainstream industry averages, it looks fantastic! It was shot entirely on location (when you watch it, you’ll see what makes that feat so impressive on a small budget); and there’s even some CGI work.
And while he did say that he was careful not to tie the film’s setting to any real place, time or issue – so as not to suppress its chances of being opened up to a wider, richer viewing experience and thus interpretation – it’s hard to watch “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and not immediately think of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. The images of father and daughter floating in a makeshift boat on what used to be concrete, but now buried underneath several feet deep of water, were reminiscent of similar photos and news footage we all saw post-Katrina.
It’s a strong first feature for director Zeitlin; bold and brave, much like its soup of characters – fearless warriors who believe that they can do anything, greeting their disposition with celebration instead of remorse or self-pity, led by the courage of an emotionally brave 6-year old girl named Hushpuppy. It was an unconventional film – one centered around a young, black girl who defies all expectations.
The film, which earned a decent $12.5 million in USA box office, is available on several home video platforms around the world.