Beasts of the Southern Wild


No Bathing in This Bathtub

Main Cast: Quvenzhane Wallis, Dwight Henry

Director: Benh Zeitlan

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences opened the Best Motion Picture category up from 5 movies to a maximum of 10, I heard grumbling.  It was me.  I didn’t really believe that they were going to find 10 worthy movies each year and that it was but a ploy to add in some popular, blockbuster-type crap that didn’t really have a chance but would bring in more TV broadcast viewers.  Yes, I am just that cynical.  But as things have evolved I’m so happy to see movies that never would have gotten a hint of recognition in the past getting Best Picture nominations under the new system.  It isn’t blockbusters that are filling in where the traditional Oscar bait ends, but movies like Beasts of the Southern Wild.

I’m not quite sure how to describe Beasts of the Southern Wild.  There is a story here, but it is pretty bare bones.  A little girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) is growing up in a shanty town in the Mississippi delta.  It really isn’t habitable land, for it will flood.  The structures aren’t really habitable for they are mere shacks.  The community is made up of those who choose to live off the grid.  There’s a lot of alcohol being consumed.  The story follows Hushpuppy as she lives this life with her father (Dwight Henry) and the other residents of what they call “The Bathtub”.

The more formidable aspect of the film is the slice of life we see.  Life in The Bathtub is hard, but people aren’t unhappy there.  Everything is filthy, everyone is filthy, there is no doubt that each and every child would be removed from this place if authorities knew they existed.  But there is also joy and celebration and independence and fierce loyalty here.  Little Hushpuppy learns some of all of that as she takes in her minimal (and highly suspect) schooling and imagines ancient aurochs challenging her place in this primitive world.

Beast of the Southern Wild is stunning to look at (and I saw it on DVD – it would be fabulous on the big screen).  Director Benh Zeitlan has no problem with long shots of the land, the houses, the people or daily life in The Bathtub.  Hushpuppy does quite a bit of voice-over narration as she explains her connection to this place and to nature in general and we watch amazing pictures of this place, both rich and barren, cross the screen.  Living here teaches her that she is a part of the land, and it is a part of her.  She respects it and is learning how to live off its bounty.  Some part of her wishes for a different life – she speaks often of her mother (who is not in her life) and occasionally of leaving The Bathtub.  She fears being on her own.  She fears her father – and she fears for him.  She is learning to be fierce.

Wallis and Henry are spectacular as Hushpuppy and her daddy.  The dialogue is pretty sparse, most of the emotion comes from facial expression and body posture.  Wallis was a little, little girl when this was filmed (barely six years old) and she’s outstanding.  I like the choice to do a lot of her dialogue as voice-over – it frees her up to create her character as one of joyous movement and patient stillness.  Henry doesn’t have an enviable role as her ailing, alcoholic father, but he doesn’t back away from the less admirable aspects of the character, which gives his moments of love and tenderness greater impact.

Beasts of the Southern Wild has an art house flavor without the pretentiousness of something like Terrence Malik’s Tree of Life from last year’s Oscars.  It’s lovely and enigmatic and heartbreaking.  My personal preference would have been to leave out the CGI aurochs that represent Hushpuppy’s fears – they aren’t particularly well rendered and I don’t think they added much to the film.  But it’s definitely a film more than worth seeing – it sparked a lot of discussion in our house about what constitutes neglect of a child, where that line should be drawn and the endless number of ways people live, invisibly, in our massive society.  I would love to hear an engaged, diverse high school sociology class discuss the movie.  4 stars out of 5, recommended for pretty much anyone with a little patience for the unusual.

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