Sometimes it takes a little film to propel careers to unfathomable heights. Independent films come and go, but every so often one comes along and alerts the world to emerging talent. Being John Malkovich unleashed the impenetrable mind of Charlie Kaufman and the visual virtuoso named Spike Jonze. Without their mind bending film, Kaufman and Jonze would’ve likely seen a tougher path to glory. (500) Days of Summer, a film that revived the romantic comedy genre, gave Joseph Gordon-Levitt leading man credibility and director Marc Webb an opportunity to direct a big budget film that plays off his namesake. One small, seemingly inconsequential film can lead to pay dirt. Beasts of the Southern Wild, a film that triumphantly debuted this January at the Sundance Film Festival, represents another career launching pad. Written and directed by Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a film that will undoubtedly be picked apart for its political undertones. But I’m not particularly interested in the political mirages that may exist to the left or the right. What interests me is the fact this profound film quietly slips a knife into the viewer’s heart. Taking place in a dilapidated wonderland known as The Bathtub, a city that emulates the harsh reality of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Beasts of the Southern Wild seeks out beauty in its inhabitants, not the fable world they live in.
The opening sequence, which features a barrage of illuminating fireworks and people joyously laughing in the face of an impending storm, invites us to embrace a group of people who live beyond the levee. None of which is more ferocious, more magnetic than Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a six-year-old girl who refuses fear’s handcuffs. Hushpuppy spends most of her days investigating the world by listening to the heartbeats of animals. Through the rhythmic beats of the Bathtub’s fauna, Hushpuppy begins to understand her place in the world at large. Her education doesn’t end there. As a matter of fact, her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), attempts to nurture a tough, no crying mindset. Considering the harsh texture applied to the world, Wink wants to make his daughter strong enough to survive on her own. With a breaching storm and Wink falling ill, Hushpuppy will need all the strength she can muster as the world collapses under massive mythological weight. The waters rise, the Bathtub drowns, and a father and daughter wade their way through troubled waters. Surrounded by Zeitlin’s grim, fantastical vision, Hushpuppy becomes an unlikely hero in a complicated world.
Being that Hushpuppy is our portal to this world, Zeitlin’s screenplay gives us a great deal of insight regarding how a child comes to understand the world around them. From the Bathtub becoming a watery grave to Wink’s illness, Hushpuppy’s precociousness spawns fantastic explanations. In most cases, she believes she has broken the world in a manner that needs immediate resolution. So she moves briskly to mend a broken link, hoping to reestablish order to her life; to the universe. In many respects, Beasts of the Southern Wild is about capturing the prism in which children render the world. Fables, if anything, allow them to grip reality. Much like Pan’s Labyrinth, Beasts of the Southern Wild juxtaposes a child’s imagination beautifully against cold chaos. The only difference between the two films is this: Hushpuppy, unlike Ofelia, gladly takes on reality with a staunch stance and stubborn face, refusing to give ground to life’s misfortunes. Giving life to Hushpuppy is the tremendous Quvenzhané Wallis. In her first role ever, Quvenzhané lights up the screen with an unlikely performance. Her fearless eyes and physical ferocity lend the film an undeniable emotional heft, one that likely would’ve been missing had it not been for her untamed tenacity. It is truly one of the great introductory performances film has ever seen.
Not to be outmatched is Dwight Henry as Wink, another first time actor that pierces the screen with emotional resonance. Much of Wink’s dialog is violently hurled about, but underneath, Henry makes the anger merely a veil masking Wink’s misgivings and concern as a parent. The chemistry he shares with Quvenzhané compounds with each scene. Much like the film itself, they’re simply magical. Their work gains more traction when we factor in one of the year’s best scores. It’s a score that evokes the Bayou’s colorful, eclectic musical tendencies and the swelling wonder of a fantasy film. An unexpected musical combination lends itself perfectly to an unsuspecting film. Because of this triumphant film, multiple careers have the opportunity to grow. Humanistic, vibrant and ferocious, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a rarity that demands our attention.