Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

“Strong animals know when your hearts are weak.”

You know that feeling when you go to an art gallery and see a painting or a sculpture; you look at it, and realize that it has beautiful qualities, and there is some substance to it, but you’re not quite sure what to make of it? Perhaps the people standing next to you in the matched expensive jackets talk to one another about how fantastic it is, and looking at it, you can’t say that they’re wrong, but it doesn’t quite speak to you. Today’s movie, Beasts of the Southern Wild is like that piece of art. It’s beautiful and has a hand-crafted feel that evokes old home movies more than it does a real piece of cinema. Of course, that’s because, by and large that’s what it is. It’s a beautiful piece of art, featuring a pair of previously unknown actors delivering performances that will be talked about for years to come. All of that is indisputably true and yet, I’m not sure that it’s a good movie.

The film, shot on 16mm cameras with a miniscule budget, tells the story of a young girll called Hushpuppy and played by the adorable Quvenzhané Wallis, living in a very remote part of southern Louisiana. Hushpuppy is nearly an orphan, and incredibly self-reliant, living in her own “house,” (in reality an old mobile home,) a short distance away from the shack occupied by her single father, Wink (Dwight Henry). The film is told exclusively through Hushpuppy’s point of view, and does an excellent job of avoiding the temptation to pull back and offer an adult interpretation of events.

Both Wallis and Henry excel in their roles and I will be astonished if both do not receive serious consideration come Oscar season. But here again, I’m not sure if I’m seeing fantastic acting, or perhaps just spot-on casting. Either way, both performers create memorable, indelible characters that fit seamlessly into the world created by director Benh Zeitlin. And experiencing this world, seen through a child’s eyes, is really what the film is entirely about. It is at times bright and beautiful, and at other times dark and menacing, it’s a cinematic experience.The narrative in this movie does not conform to a traditional narrative structure, and yet at the end of the journey all the pieces are there. The protagonist faces trials and tribulations, and after a great test in which her world is forever changed, emerges from the other side stronger and prepared for whatever life may bring her. That said, the the plot is heavy with metaphor and child-like confusion that are both the film’s greatest strength and also its greatest weakness.

In the end this is a true cinematic experience, it’s a piece of art. The colors are bright and vivid, if slightly out of focus. The music is fantastic, but under-utilized. The storytelling makes a brilliant commitment to telling a child’s experience through a child’s eyes, and yet because children often don’t understand everything that’s going on around them, the plot winds up somewhat muddled. Still, it’s worth seeing. In fact, I’d recommend trying to catch it in a theater.

[Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) – Directed by Benh Zeitlin – Rated PG-13 for thematic material including child imperilment, some disturbing images, language and brief sensuality]

OM|ED Rating: Worth Seeing