By: Addison Wylie
It’s hard to make a solid judgement on the indie hit Beasts of the Southern Wild. On the one hand, it deserves praise for doing what it does so well. On the flip side, it does what it does so well, that it becomes frustrating.
Based on her one-act play called Juicy and Delicious, Lucy Alibar and director Benh Zeitlin adapt the story of survival after a tremendous flood for the big screen.
The film’s central character is Hushpuppy, a curious and rambunctious youngin’ played by first-time actress Quvenzhané Wallis. Hushpuppy lives in a primitive bayou called “the Bathtub” with a giddily rowdy community who are aware of the inevitable rising waters.
When danger strikes, Hushpuppy and her father Wink, played by first-time actor Dwight Henry, take cover and awaken to a washed out landscape of rubble and flowing waters.
Beasts of the Southern Wild isn’t about surviving a natural disaster. It’s about learning how to recover from such a tragedy.
The fun-loving community surrounding Hushpuppy and Wink are shown living in shanties. They’re represented as poor people but not broken people. They feed on the social interactivity around them and that’s what drives them to maintain high spirits.
Zeitlin, along with his talented cast, has done a strong job representing communal strength. We never see them cry or be weak because having that support from friends and family lights that fire underneath them to focus on what to shoot for.
Whether it’s an authentic representation of post-disaster behavior is questionable, but the friendships and the positive attitudes make rooting for this motley crew easy.
The film is told from the perspective of six-year-old Hushpuppy. This is where I really wrestle with a final grade.
Like the high spirits represented by the community, the portrayal of the innocence of a child is shown with equal competence. We always believe what we’re seeing is what this little girl would be focused on.
When Hushpuppy and her pals search for her mother in an establishment that may or may not be a brothel or a gentlemen’s club, Hushpuppy’s focus isn’t aimed at the scantily clad women asking them questions. She’s much too focused on the dust that lingers in the air in front of the lights.
Hushpuppy is fascinated with sounds. We see and hear her resting her ear up to animals to hear the pounding of their heart and when a noise is heard far away, she instantly thinks of the first thing that would make a similar crash. She also has an active imagination that cuts in and out as it pleases.
All of this adds to our energetic lead character but does it interrupt the story or cause distractions? Yes.
I appreciate Zeitlin wanting to tell this tale from the perspective of a young one and I applaud him for excelling, but this style shouldn’t get in the way of the story.
For example, there are scenes that occur where Hushpuppy will be daydreaming while a conversation goes on between the adults. All of a sudden, someone will start yelling. And then, Wink will yell at Hushpuppy to do something. Hushpuppy is taken off guard and confused and we can’t help but feel the same way.
These conversations may not provide much to the story but by constantly taking audiences out of the action to throw us into the mind of a daydreaming six-year-old is risky and creative but a tad maddening. What if those conversations were adding depth to the adults? You can still keep the visuals in the mind of a child while the audio captures the rowdiness of an adult.
The film does this often and at first we aren’t too sure what the film is doing. With Beasts of the Southern Wild being very light on a hard plot, we’re searching for problems to invest in but, the film doesn’t allow us to get involved.
However, during that brothel/gentlemen’s club sequence, audiences will officially realize what Zeitlin and Alibar were doing from the start and it’s up to us to decide if this was a step in the right direction or if this filmmaking could’ve been tamed.
After stewing on it, I walked away from Beasts of the Southern Wild with a strong appreciation and affection for it and I may even watch it again down the road (it has an appropriate and breezy runtime, by the way).
I don’t agree 100% with how often we’re taken inside the mind of young Hushpuppy but I’d rather see a filmmaker experimenting with different techniques in order to make a spark than a lazy filmmaker settling with a familiar fizzle.