Wild thing – Beasts of the Southern Wild review (Sydney Film Festival)

Beasts of the Southern Wild – Starring Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, and Gina Montana. Directed by Benh Zeitlin. By Simon Miraudo.

Beasts of the Southern Wild played the Sydney Film Festival. It hits Australian cinemas September 13, 2012.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is steeped in culture; an American landmark that will perhaps one day be referred to as the first great post-Katrina film. It’s brimming with history and mystery, effortlessly fusing what we know of Louisiana with epic mythology, and then expanding that mysticism into the lives of the people that live near the bayou. Benh Zeitlin‘s feature directorial debut feels like one that will be cherished by kids for decades to come, and lead Hushpuppy – played by six-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis – might be remembered as iconic a child protagonist as To Kill a Mockingbird‘s Scout, Days of Heaven‘s Linda, and Where the Wild Things Are‘s Max (the three pictures it shares the most in common with). But these are all hyperbolic suppositions of a movie’s legacy before it’s even had time to earn it. All I can accurately report is my feelings upon leaving the cinema, and truthfully, it broke my heart to walk away from the strains of Dan Romer and Zeitlin’s anthemic score as the credits rolled. Both quixotic and brutally blunt, this mini-masterpiece bewitched me from the opening moments to the last.

Our madly intelligent and stubborn narrator Hushpuppy lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) in The Bathtub, an Eden-like island off the coast of Southern Louisiana. In the first sequence, we see this happy commune of drinkers and dreamers and storytellers and survivors celebrating their independence from the real world and the harsh realities that come with it. However, harsh reality is encroaching on their paradise, with the sight of an environment-destroying factory spotted just beyond the levee. A ‘big storm’ is coming, but the residents of The Bathtub are devoted to staying put. Not long after, when the water has risen to roof level and the animals have drowned, they construct a shanty hut from where they’ll celebrate their endurance and drink to the dead. Later, they plot to blow up the dam and evacuate the water, not realising that the damage already done cannot be undone.

Before the flood, feisty Hushpuppy imagines the polar caps melting and fabled, man-eating, land-crushing creatures being unfrozen as a result. Her pop goes missing for a few days, leaving her to prove her mettle and find food; she pledges to eat her pets should things turn dire. Wink returns in a hospital gown, belligerent and weak, and it’s clear that climate change is not the only inevitable conclusion facing the inhabitants of The Bathtub. No-nonsense teacher Miss Bathsheeba (Gina Montana) and Wink try to prepare Hushpuppy for a future in which she will likely be alone. All the while she keeps imagining the titular beasts stampeding towards her, ready to tear her world apart.

Wallis gives one of the most explosively charismatic lead performances of recent memory, and her chemistry with Henry as her loving yet cruel dad is endlessly watchable. The movie is based on Lucy Alibar’s play Juicy and Delicious, and she co-wrote the screenplay with Zeitlin (who had previously made a short based on the tragic hurricane that engulfed New Orleans, entitled Glory at Sea). Beasts of the Southern Wild is more than just a two-hander between two fascinating characters though; it’s grand in scope and overwhelming in execution. It offers a fictionalised, fantastical, folkloric, and often frightening account of Katrina without ever uttering its name. It also speaks to human resilience and ignorance; we treasure our homes above all else, but are content to let harm come to the Earth on which we all reside. When Wink is offered help in the form of modern medicine, he desperately rejects the cure. In the final act, Hushpuppy goes looking for her magical mother, who abandoned them back in the day because she couldn’t bear to take care of anyone else. The Bathtubbers tell Hushpuppy she can only rely on herself, not realising that the community as a whole is a living, breathing entity too, and being a part of it is maybe the only worthwhile thing in this life. Beasts of the Southern Wild is about a young girl learning about the unavoidable death of man and the death of our planet, yet it’s stirring, shiver-inducing, heart-bursting, and dare we say it, inspirational.


Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

Beasts of the Southern Wild played the Sydney Film Festival. It hits Australian cinemas September 13, 2012.

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