Masterful and alluring, Beasts Of The Southern Wild is a true American masterpiece; the definition of cinematic beauty
If you were going to create a film based on the disaster that was Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there are many directions a film maker could go in. An action film probably starring Dennis Quaid, perhaps? A political thriller based on the slow reaction from George W. Bush? None could have predicted this part-fantasy, part drama about poverty, moonshine, climate change, and a young girl just trying to make sense of the universe. Set on the Louisiana gulf coast in a small island the inhabitants call 'The Bathtub', the story follows a six year old cutely named Hushpuppy, and her alcoholic, often abusive Father, Wink. Every actor or actress in this film were locals hand picked by up and coming director Benh Zeitlin, none were professional before doing the film. Quvenzhane Wallis stars as Hushpuppy and also acts as the films philosophical commentator as we see everything through her wondering imaginative eye while Dwight Henry, who was chosen while reading his lines in a bakery, plays Wink.
Beasts Of The Southern Wild begins on the fictional swampy 'Bathtub' island, full of rickety wooden houses, farm animals and raggedy children. The period of the film was uncertain to start off, with the opening shots you could see it being a pre american civil war slavery plantation or even a distant apocalyptic future, yet this just made the film even more alluring. In a beautiful first shot we see Hushpuppy running with sparklers, the colours and camera movement are sublime, while it also shows us the carefree yet ignorant and stubborn nature of the Bathtub natives.
Living in separate shacks, we see Hushpuppy and her father Wink's relationship as different from the start. Treating her like a pet as he throws her a big chicken carcass to eat and to 'share with the dog' as well as this it is clear he tends to disappear with no notice after drunken binges with other islanders, leaving Hushpuppy very much to her own devices. As the film continues we see their relationship taking different turns as Wink's health deteriorates and Hushpuppy goes on the search for her absent Mother.
When Hurricane Katrina hits the Island, only a few loyal natives remain, using what's left of the wooden wrecks to construct a smallish house for the community. Despite the abusive nature of Wink, the other islanders are good hearted and well meaning and look after each other well regardless of their squalid living conditions. As the storm gets worse, the islanders are forced to leave their only home and go to hospitals on the main land, where their stubbornness and ignorance is again proven. While the story continues, it is obvious Hushpuppy deeply misses her Mother, and what follows in the search of her is strange, yet heart warming. Hushpuppy's continuing struggle to understand the world and people around her are beautifully symbolised towards the film's tragic end.
It is refreshing to see that the gamble taken by Zeitlin in casting locals pays off. Wallis as Hushpuppy steals the show in a magnetic and humbling performance. A scrappy mix of tomboyish charm, ferocious nature and strong emotion are all beautifully portrayed by the young actress. I would be surprised if she did not receive an Academy Award nomination. Dwight Henry as Wink portrays a broken man, long past his prime, but regardless of his abusive behaviour, his love for his daughter is clear from the start, and even clearer at the end, while we do see spurts of his playful if somewhat unorthodox nature with Hushpuppy. His performance is powerful, and much like Wallis, you'll have a hard time believing that acting isn't his day job. The film is shot on a Super 16 handheld camera, making for dizzying and wonderful viewing, while this also intermits with images of crumbling glaciers and pre-historic aurochs. All this sounds confusingly chaotic, but somehow it blends not just simply but stunningly to create a truly beautiful piece of cinema.
Beasts Of The Southern Wild is a fantastical fairy tale full of grit. It is a modern day fable, full of colour, masterful acting and life affirming vividness not matched by any other film this year. 5/5