Her name is Hushpuppy, and she is the avid storyteller that guides through the bulk of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” one of the most thoughtful and moving movies of recent memory. In a brief stretch of 93 minutes, we learn as much of her sense of adventure as her eager lips permit; she pours on details like a chatty child discovering a new best friend, and offers glimpses into a world where limitations are simply a platform to new possibilities. Of the many quirks that she will possess here, one of the most notable involves the rapport she has with animals, domesticated or otherwise. They are not just pets, but extensions of a family she has created in her mind: a family rooted in her interests about the animal kingdom that originate from the colorful lessons of her schoolteacher, Miss Bathsheba (Gina Montana). Sometimes that is exemplified literally – as in a scene where she will speak to the animals like children, and call them by specific names – and in other moments it is almost spiritual – like in a series of successive occurrences in which she holds an animal up to her ear in order to hear the pattern of its heartbeat, or when she fears that deadly beasts known as “Aurochs” are coming to snatch her away from everything she knows. What fascinates her so about these sorts of connections that she finds her weary mind daydreaming about such inexplicable possibilities? It is the engine of love that bonds her to the life force of the Earth, and such exchanges are simply a gesture of affection that remind us of their shared companionship, even in the thick of ominous warnings.
So much, needless to say, is stacked against her from the very beginning. The bayou, resting well below sea level, is a dangerous and brutal stretch of islands that flood every time there is a rainstorm. Each tempest is met with incensed defiance, all formulated from within by survivalist approaches that Werner Herzog would have been moved by. Before the waters recede, they take to their raft – a truck bed barely held up by plastic buckets – off to find survivors (if any remained behind, that is); those that have passed are not mourned in displays of pathos, but celebrated loudly like athletes who are triumphant in sport. Meanwhile, her father – apparently either very sick or dying – does all in his power to toughen her up to the point of an abrasive exterior; because he may be facing mortality, he refuses to have her wallow in the throes of grief. And just as Hushpuppy’s bleak situation is made bleaker by unforeseen events, she carries on peripheral conversations with a voice she hopes is her lost mother, who “swam away” in her early youth and has never been seen or heard from since.
The young heroine is played by Quvenzhane Wallis, who not only gives one of the great youthful performances of our time, but in many ways transcends all notions of façade. What we are seeing may, in fact, be as close to the truth as any person occupying a documentary. Much of that can be said of the minor characters too – including the performance by Dwight Henry as the dad, who too showcases a remarkable conviction of sincerity. Perhaps rightfully, the movie was cast with unknowns who lived nearby; without the looming stigma of movie star ego overwhelming this concept, all that emerges from the frame is the nobility of all these fresh faces. Never is that more apparent than in the adult exchanges with Hushpuppy; in one of the film’s most sobering scenes, she argues with her dad over the prognosis of his mysterious illness. “Don’t you shed a tear, boss lady,” dad informs her. There is no impulse of sentiment on either side; only the neutralizing of potential weeps with a display that is empowering, sweet and remarkably honest.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” came and went in the momentary fanfare of notable motion picture achievements of 2012, but unlike many of its peers it has only grown more powerful with each passing viewing, and even now seems to defy the odds stacked against small films by first-time filmmakers. That says just as much about the passion of the director, Benh Zeitlin, as it does the emotional purity of its wonderful young star. Zeitlin made only a handful of short films before turning to this subject – based on a stage play – as his full-length directorial debut, and perhaps his sense of concentration is indicative of the virtuous values that continue to exist beyond the Hollywood studio system. His movie is so utterly honest and painful sometimes that we wonder how even he could face it so directly. Oftentimes, he wanders close to the razor’s edge. But the material is never hampered by a realization of morose undercurrents; for it to do so, that might have disrupted the momentum of the more whimsical moments. Consider, for example, how Hushpuppy narrates with such passive agreeability when the threats of storms are too much for many fleeing neighbors to handle (“Daddy says brave men don’t run from their home”), or how sincere her face remains when she silently contemplates the fate of many of her missing animal friends. These are not experiences any young child should be dealing with in such extreme degrees, but her core is made impenetrable by ongoing extremes, the examples of friends with positive outlooks and the lessons of a dad who rules with strict guidance not to instigate fear, but to prepare her for taking up the mantle of a champion in a sea of inevitable failures.
Most of this is mandated by an underlying narrative obligation to expose Hushpuppy to some hefty emotional developments, but “Beasts of the Southern Wild” always avoids taking the conventional road. Better yet, it never panders to the allure of shameless manipulation. The final act of the film, involving the residents of the Bathtub being whisked away in an elaborate evacuation of the bayou, is a precursor to a climax in which her hardened demeanor must confront two earth-shattering realities: 1) the discovery of the woman who may in fact be her long-lost mother, and 2) the impending death of a father who has pushed her to choke back any tears of grief. Most filmmakers would thrust those situations – however sincere – into the picture frame as deadpan realities, but Zeitlin creatively uses his early metaphors to set the stage, and these realizations come to a head in a scene involving the Aurouchs that is so daring and powerful that it left me in a state of breathless emotional wonder.
How is all of that possible given the downtrodden nature of the material? It’s because the movie, in essence, never wavers from the perspective of its youngest face, who has remained untethered in the challenge of ongoing tragedy, and who was taught by a loving parent to always answer the sadness with an obligatory sneer of protest. In a time when the cynicism of the real world often mandates the tone of our films, here is one that acknowledges it all with unwavering joy, and wades through the wicked wilderness with the kind of stubborn conviction that insists that not only must life go on, but must always get better in the process. How remarkable a lesson that must be for any child to grasp, least of all one who only knows of a time and place where happiness is the most elusive of treasures.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Drama/Fantasy (US); 2012; Rated PG-13; Running Time: 93 Minutes
Quvenzhane Wallis: Hushpuppy
Dwight Henry: Wink
Levy Easterly: Jean Battiste
Lowell Landes: Walrus
Gina Montana: Miss Bathsheba
Produced by Chris Carroll, Casey Coleman, Phillip Engelhorn, Annie Evelyn, Michael Gottwald, Nathan Harrison, Dan Janvey, Lucas Joaquin, Paul Mezey, Matthew Parker, Josh Penn, Michael Raisler and John Williams; Directed by Benh Zeitlin; Written by Ben Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar; based on the stage play “Juicy and Delicious” by Lucy Alibar