“I see that I am a little piece of a big, big universe, and that makes it right.”
I’m impressed by what Benh Zeitlin and Court 13 Pictures have created with Beasts of the Southern Wild. I’m even more impressed when I consider that the film was made by a first-time feature filmmaker using non-professional actors with little to no experience and a budget of less than $2 million.
The end product — a beautifully crafted story about a girl and a community who unite to overcome tough circumstances made worse by a natural disaster — is a film that will most certainly move you in some way, like it or not. And its storytelling is very simple and straightforward, which is hard to find in independent filmmaking these days.
The story begins and ends in the Bathtub, a ramshackle Louisiana bayou community cut off from the rest of civilization by levees. No one could live here, could they? It is one huge swamp, disgusting in nature yet vivid in character.
But the main character, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), states that there are more holidays in the Bathtub than anywhere else in the world, and for people with so little in the form of material goods and life opportunities, it is inspiring to see them live with such love of life and purpose.
The Bathtub’s occupants are families of all colors and sizes, a community that sticks together like one giant family. The film is narrated and seen through the eyes of Hushpuppy, a 6-year-old girl who has been raised as one with nature, and whose maturity and demeanor are far more consistent with that of someone 5 or 6 times her age. Played by Wallis with undying poise, Hushpuppy is one of the more memorable characters you will see on the screen this year.
As the story begins, the ice caps are rapidly melting, which means that in due time — indeed, at any time — the waters surrounding the community will rise, causing a flood so destructive that it will force the Bathtub’s occupants to live on floating homes and rafts and boats made of truck beds.
On top of this, Hushpuppy’s father Wink (Dwight Henry) is dying slowly and growing weak while trying to raise his daughter to remain strong no matter the circumstances. This juxtaposition of strength and weakness is key throughout the film, and peaks at two emotional high-points: one involving Hushpuppy and Wink, and the other involving Hushpuppy and some beastly, mammoth ancient creatures called aurochs.
As you watch Beasts, you grow accustomed to its style and are quite easily able to overlook its flaws. The film relies on the viewer’s ability to connect with characters that we fully realize, or at least should fully realize, we have no business connecting with.
I doubt most any of us can truly relate to characters like Wink, or Hushpuppy, or anyone else who lives in the Bathtub. But director Benh Zeitlin is smart. He acknowledges these differences and, instead of bringing his characters into our world, he ropes us into theirs so that we may catch a glimpse of both the troubles and the triumphs in their lives. And he creates an emotional response by simply bringing us along as he tells his story.
While many people, like Oprah, would have you believe that this is the best film ever made and that it creates vast change in people, its effect on me isn’t nearly that profound. But Beasts of the Southern Wild is an emotional, impactful film, and a good one at that. I suggest you see it, if only once to prove that you don’t need $200 million to make a movie worth watching.