Beasts Of The Southern Wild Review

When I first read the plot synopsis for Benh Zeitlin’s first feature-length film Beasts Of The Southern Wild, I honestly had no idea what to expect.

The story revolves around Hushpuppy, an initially androgynous six-year-old who resides in a shack with her father, Wink.

The pair belong to a community living off the land in a bayou known only as “The Bathtub”, and happily cut off by a wide levee from the rest of the world (which is represented by large, smoke-spewing factory-type buildings, boo hiss).

Tragedy then strikes, as Wink’s health deteriorates and Hushpuppy must start learning to fend for herself.

To make matters worse, a storm arises, flooding the bayou and causing giant, far-off glaciers to crack and fall into the sea, releasing long-frozen creatures. These prehistoric beasts, known as aurochs, then set off overland, making an angry beeline for The Bathtub.

From this description, I must admit that I was expecting some Ice Age or Fern Gully-esque animated tale, chronicling the triumph of untamed nature over corporate ignorance.

Perhaps featuring a plucky talking-animal sidekick or two.

Instead, I was treated to this live-action, exquisitely shot film where the focus rests more on the characters and setting than the story.

The undeniable draw of the film is Quvenzhané Wallis, who plays the young protagonist.

As the simultaneously innocent yet hardened Hushpuppy, Wallis gives a mesmerising performance. She is all wide eyed wonder one minute, marvelling at the living, breathing creatures around her, and then happily chomping into a cooked chicken the next.

The majority of Hushpuppy’s dialogue is delivered via her internal monologue, making any of her external mannerisms- whether suddenly screaming or fiercely scowling- all the more striking.

The fact that Wallis, along with the majority of the cast, is technically an untrained actor may hurt the film’s prospects at the Screen Actors Guild awards next year. Let’s just hope the Oscars are still a possibility.

In depicting The Bathtub, the filmmakers succeed in conjuring up a three dimensional world into which we are unapologetically plunged headfirst. Hushpuppy’s voiceover is the film’s only and limited source of exposition, and the bayou itself is given depth as a place blissfully free of governmental framework but also dangerously reliant on external aid.

This latter aspect is rendered more pertinent by the film’s setting: it is unclear exactly where the Bathtub is located, though the storm-swept environs of Louisiana are heavily suggested.

It is also, for that matter, unclear exactly when the story takes place, given the various fantasy elements. These touches are refreshingly subtle: the aurochs, for example, may be fictional creations, yet look no more fantastical (though no less ferocious) than oversized wild boar.

Ultimately, time, place and even realism are irrelevant to what lies at the film’s core: an epic depiction of the pain behind growing up and finding your place in the world.

Ok, that message may reek of cliché, but this film delivers it with such imagination and self-belief that it hits you like a breath of fresh air.

Conor Brennan

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Dates ‘n stuff

October 2012