One of the reasons that I love going to the Sundance Film Festival is that amidst the sea of angst-ridden romances, dramas that explore feelings that have long-since been forgotten about, and documentaries, you’ll sometimes find a gem that will change the way you see movies. Beasts of the Southern Wild was that film for me this year.
At face value, it’s a difficult film to fully explain. A society that lives off the grid from the mainland of a country ignores the warnings that their lives are in danger should the nearby levee break. They live in ignorant bliss, reveling in their lives and calling their home “The Bathtub” in a light-hearted mocking of the fact that a wall of water could come crashing down and destroy them all.
At the heart of the movie lies Hushpuppy, a six-year-old girl who lives near her father in a separate dwelling that allows her to live a wild, free existence with the other residents of the Bathtub. When she needs solace, she hides in a cardboard box in her stilt-supported home and draws pictures that will “Tell the world that there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub.” But despite their best efforts, the outside world does intrude on their existence. Wink, Hushpuppy’s father, goes missing one day, leaving Hushpuppy to fend for herself. When he finally does return, he’s wearing a hospital gown and a hospital bracelet, two things that are completely foreign to Hushpuppy. He ignores her, driving her to act out by burning her house down. This leads to an enormous fight with Wink, the first of many they have throughout the movie. But as often as they fight, they also have a lot of fun together. While they don’t have a traditional father / daughter relationship, it couldn’t be more clear that he loves her.
Hushpuppy comes to learn that her father is sick, and she begins to think that he might die and will leave her alone. She faces this possibility with strongly, but also doesn’t want him to die. Wink’s illness, an impending storm, and the release of prehistoric monsters aiming for the Bathtub frame the rest of the narrative of Beasts.
The movie is part fantasy, and partially a reaction to a post-Katrina New Orleans, as many of the residents speak in a near-Creole dialect, and live in their own version of the Bayou. But in the map of the Bathtub and the surrounding area that is shown early in the film, it is clear that this area does not exist in our own world. It’s pure fantasy, grounded in a reality that we all know.
The movie is utterly amazing, and is powered by an incredible performance from Quvenzhané Wallis as the six-year-old Hushpuppy. Dwight Henry also turns in a terrific performance as Wink, both of whom are first time actors and residents of the Louisiana bayou country. The film itself is loosely based on the play Juicy and Delicious by Lucy Alibar, which is about a young boy losing his father at the end of the world. She co-wrote the film with Benh Zeitlin, who also directed the film as his first feature.
Luckily, Fox Searchlight has picked up the rights to Beasts of the Southern Wild, and you can probably expect to see it at an art house theater somewhere near you in the coming months. It’s well worth watching, and will take you out of your own world, if just for a little while.
The Upside: This is a beautiful film mired in fantasy and reality with a powerhouse performance from Quvenzhané Wallis.
The Downside: Sadly, middle-America will probably avoid this film en masse as they won’t “get it.”
On the Side: According to Wikipedia, Hushpuppies are savory, starch-based foods made from cornmeal that is deep fried or baked in small ball or sphere shapes. And yes, they are very delicious (though not juicy).