“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a rare triumph of independent cinema, brimming with originality and managing to draw the viewer into its world with such organic ease that it is almost staggering. The story centers on six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) who lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) in “The Bathtub,” a small isolated community in the Southern Delta. Their father/daughter relationship is filled with tough love, but they must do what they can to stick together as treacherous weather floods The Bathtub and threatens their community.
Meanwhile, Wink is battling a debilitating illness that also puts things in jeopardy for them. Each of their scenes has a strong tension that is underlined by the harsh reality that is being thrust upon the young child who may not realize the full magnitude of what she is up against. Maybe it’s beginner’s luck, or just spot on casting, but Wallis is fantastic in the role, giving what will probably go down as one of the all time memorable child performances in cinema. She has a natural presence and it seems as if Zeitlin and his crew realized that sometimes just holding the camera on her was enough to get their point across.
What really works best for the film is its overall presentation. It’s quite an astonishing debut film, and Zeitlin and his various collaborators deserve a lot of credit for getting all of the elements to work together just right, especially on a low budget and in harsh shooting conditions. Whether it’s the grainy 16mm cinematography, the excellent use of desolate bayou locations, sudden story detours into magical realism, or the rousing score (co-credited to Zeitlin), everything somehow comes together with beautiful results.
Also, by telling the story all through the viewpoint of its child protagonist (complete with voice over that may remind you of “Days of Heaven”), it allows us to naturally experience everything as it is happening to Hushpuppy. There are even times where certain elements of what is going on seem vague and ambiguous, but since it is all presented as the way it is happening to her, it actually makes more sense that audiences be left a little bit in the dark. It only further adds to immersing the viewer in the journey right there with Hushpuppy.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” seems destined to continue receiving plaudits from critics as it starts to hit theaters throughout the year. And though it may seem like an unlikely audience favorite on the surface, it appears to have the power to win people over. When bringing this film up in conversation with other festival attendees, it tends to elicit a “that’s my favorite movie of the year so far” response from just about everyone who has seen it.