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Thoughts on the Oscar-Nominated “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

January 23, 2013

By John C.

Beasts of the Southern Wild PosterI’ve been meaning to write about Beasts of the Southern Wild since the film first opened in theatres last July.  But it kept flying under my radar for various reasons throughout the summer, and I never got a chance to share my full thoughts on the film.

But now that Beasts of the Southern Wild is in the running for Best Picture at the Oscars, with a surprise Best Director nomination for Benh Zeitlin to match, it seems like the perfect time to write about the beautifully made and deeply moving film.

Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father Wink (Dwight Henry) live together in separate shacks, joining each other for “feed up time” and to catch fish for food.  Their homes have been precariously built amongst the natural landscape of The Bathtub, a forgotten corner of New Orleans filled with intriguing characters who live their daily lives completely off the grid.  Hushpuppy spends her days at the ramshackle school, where Miss Bathsheba (Gina Montana) tells them about the Aurochs, ancient creatures that used to rule the land.

“The ice caps gonna melt, the water’s gonna rise, and everything south of the levee’s going under,” their teacher warns them, prompting the imagination of Hushpuppy to run wild.  Perhaps her imagination is her childlike way of understanding the world around her, as she starts to see the signs of Wink’s failing health and a storm that threatens to tear everything apart.  These people were born and raised in The Bathtub, and when their time comes, they will want to die there as well.  This is all they have ever known, and they have built a community where they are able to take care of each other and fulfill their small part in this big, big universe.

The film is carried by incredible performances from Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry, two remarkable performers who had never acted before they were cast.  The moments when they share the screen are incredibly well done, leading up to the deeply moving final few scenes.  Quvenzhané Wallis gives a naturalistic and ultimately heartbreakingly real performance, beautifully delivering the moments of voiceover narration that help move the film forward.  She was just six when the film was made, and her recent Oscar nomination makes her the youngest person to be included in the Best Actress field.

The landscape becomes a character within itself as it is captured by the vivid handheld camerawork, as the rising water that threatens to swallow The Bathtub becomes one of the environmental allegories in the film.  When the film cuts to a shot of a melting glacier after a fight between Hushpuppy and Wink, I was reminded of the butterfly effect.  We might not physically see the effects of climate change the same way they would be seen in other parts of the world.  But we can all relate to the moments when we have struggled to get along with someone we love, and Beasts of the Southern Wild draws an incredibly powerful comparison between the way that we care for each other and how it affects the planet.

The titular beasts are a metaphorical representation of the challenges that Hushpuppy has always faced in her relationship with Wink, challenges that she finally has to stare down.  These themes are evident in the last act of Beasts of the Southern Wild, as it becomes a deeply moving film about the bond that we will always have to where we came from.  There is plenty of interpretation and meaning that can be read into the film and pretty much everyone is guaranteed to have a slightly different reaction to what they see on screen.  But at its heart is a profoundly affecting story about a little girl and her daddy, in a world where taking care of our loved ones is a big part of what brings order to the universe.

After first premiering at Sundance a year ago this month, this is the sort of film that deserves the Oscar attention it has received, which will hopefully encourage more people to check it out.  Boasting incredible performances from newcomers Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a beautifully made and deeply moving film that plays as an exciting debut for director Benh Zeitlin.

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