5 December 2012


The first time I saw Beasts of the Southern Wild, I was slightly bushed from the 40-mile round trip that took me to see Holy Motors earlier in the same day, and this film is just so delightful. What I'm saying is, I fell asleep while watching it, and not because I was bored. I've since watched it again, at Stockton's ARC cinema, but I'm reminded of another film that I comfortably fell asleep while watching- Where The Wild Things Are, which was a similarly wonderful little fantasy film.

In a part of Louisiana that appears to have been flooded, the Bathtub is a walled-off community that is mostly underwater. The community that lives there seems to be managing just fine- they might even be better off. Amongst them is Hushpuppy, a six-year-old girl who lives in her own house, opposite her dad, Wink. With Wink's health deteriorating, the "threat" of aid from the world outside the Bathtub, and the approach of giant mythical beasts called aurochs, Hushpuppy must build and safeguard her own independence.

To me, this film is undoubtedly the most uniquely original film of the year, at least out of those films that don't dispense with narrative conventions in order to be original. I can hardly think of another film like it, in this or any other year, although I stand by my comparison with the soothing effect of Spike Jonze's Where The Wild Things Are. Beasts of the Southern Wild separates itself from any other possible comparisons just by being so bloody striking, and wonderful. However post-modern your viewpoint may be, everything about this, from the setting to the action, somehow seems brand new.

The film starts strong by establishing the strong sense of community in the Bathtub. These people are technically united by circumstance, but there's a real sense of close-knit friendship between all of the residents we meet. Following what must have been a Hurricane Katrina-scale disaster, the characters don't seem to consider themselves victims- they live larger, because of it, and seemingly adapt to what we would consider to be poverty by holding holiday celebrations all the time, and indulging in such sports as toddler-racing. There's something of a critique of temporary humanitarian aid in there, but the opening sequence, explaining this setting, is a thing of real beauty. The outside world matters as little to this film as it does to the characters.

In the centre of it all, Hushpuppy is the film's beating heart, and that heartbeat becomes a recurring motif for a little girl who values all life. At the same time, Hushpuppy is not to be messed with, given her stubborn wisdom and steely resolve. Quvenzhané Wallis gives an extraordinary performance, for a child actress who was only five years old when this was filmed, and she's relentlessly watchable throughout. Dwight Henry, who plays Wink, only has about as much acting experience as his very young co-star, but gives an incredibly nuanced performance, which would only look like so much anger and shouting to our intemperate young heroine, but has plenty to read between the lines.

If I wanted to dissect the film theoretically, (and I don't, particularly) I'd identify that the main theme of the film is legacy. This ties into the film's general message of environmental responsibility, with those ever-looming aurochs having been freed from a melted ice-cap, but we're never beaten around the head with it. Elsewhere, Hushpuppy is recording stories of her life in drawings, for the delectation of "scientists in the future", while her father tries to prepare her for the difficult future that is coming. It's a film that's conscious of what we're thinking must inevitably come to pass, and sets about preparing its characters to survive independently, with inexhaustible optimism.

The legacy of Beasts of the Southern Wild itself is to be the most vibrantly original film of the year. It's life-affirming stuff; a fairytale that's grounded in reality, and equally enthralled with the natures of both happiness and sadness. Everything about it is so distinctive, from the astonishing child actress who carries out the film's unusual premise, to the modest use of special effects to create enormous, rampaging creatures. In its own words though, it never loses sight of the story at its heart- "Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub."

Beasts of the Southern Wild is still showing in selected cinemas nationwide, and will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on February 11th 2013.
If you've seen Beasts of the Southern Wild, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

1 comment:

Ro said...

Spot-on review Mark
I was completely gobsmacked by this film too. In a word enchanting. Like a dirty, waterlogged, southern fairy tale.
Here's my two cents: http://previewsandreviews.blogspot.com.au/2012/10/beasts-of-southern-wild.html

Great writing by the way. I'm a regular reader, first time commenter. Although I must say I wasn't as taken with Jonze's where the wild things are as much as I wanted to be (or anywhere near as much as this film transported me to a special place).

Keep up the good work.