If you’re looking for something a little slower paced after a boisterous Holiday film season of long, sweeping epics, here’s the one.
The surprise of the Academy Award nominations was a small film from director Behn Zeitlin and his Court 13 arts collective. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” racked up four nominations, which was stunning in a year of big films from big names. But his quiet folktale, as told through the eyes of an unforgettable little girl (Quvenzhané Wallis, nominated for Best Actress), resonates with a subtlety rarely seen in today’s Hollywood. If I were to describe the film in one word, it would be: unique.
To put your first film on the back of a six year old who’s never acted before, is a huge leap of faith, but Zeitlin not only pulls it off, he knocks you over. Wallis is fierce and defiant as “Hushpuppy”, a girl living in the depths of poverty in the barrier island wetlands south of New Orleans, a place the residents jokingly refer to as “The Bathtub” because when the storms come, the water backs up on their side of the levee that serves to protect the big city. The film encompasses several themes: the self reliance of the people native to those islands, the love/hate relationship of Hushpuppy with her father, and the bigger picture of the changing climate.
Like a six year old, the film meanders from Hushpuppy’s fantastic visions of beasts called “aurochs”, to the stark realities of eeking out a living in the backwaters, from the meager subsistence fishing to the tough love of a backhand. What is real and what is the precocious Hushpuppy’s imagination is sometimes easy and sometimes hard to decipher, and that’s what makes the film so different from the obvious spoon fed fables Hollywood normally sells.
Shot in Lousiana, the film’s haunting musical soundtrack punctuates its emotional moments, and may be it’s one weak point, as sometimes it’s overbearing. But the cast more than makes up for it with their authenticity and understatement, which according to an article in Smithsonian Magazine, may have been the director’s doing, as he recalls an exchange between himself and his young star:
After one take, Zeitlin sidled up to her and said, “That was good. I just need a little more subtlety.” Wallis put him in his place. “I said, ‘I’m 6 years old!’” she recalls. “‘Do you really think I know what subtlety means? Come on! Gimme a kid word!’”
Zeitlin says he let the film’s script meander when filming, because things would pop up that just seemed true, and after reading that, you wonder if that was part of the inspiration for a scene where Hushpuppy is told by a salty gulf sea captain that is made cohesive by eating chicken biscuits from a fast food joint. Without missing a beat, Hushpuppy looks him dead in the eye and says “I want to be cohesive.”
In the end, she is cohesive. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” ultimately is about facing your fears and dealing with them. I guarantee you that if you give a chance (it starts rather slowly), “Beasts” will inspire you, and I need to let you know, make you cry like a “pussy”. (When you see the movie, you’ll get that reference.)
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” currently has an 86 percent approval rating on “Rotten Tomatoes”
It is currently showing on FiOs “On Demand”