Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild

2012, PG-13, 93 min. Directed by Benh Zeitlin. Starring Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly, Lowell Landes, Pamela Harper, Gina Montana, Philip Lawrence, Amber Henry, Joseph Brown.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., July 13, 2012

Not since Victor Erice's 1973 film The Spirit of the Beehive has there been such a dreamily accurate depiction of what it must be like to be a child caught fast in events of tremendous import and then tempest-tossed by dizzying waves of danger and discombobulation. Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth came awfully close; like Beehive, it also took the fragility of youth and set it against the chaotic, bloody backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, but the camera's point of view – and therefore the audience's – didn't begin and end with his doomed protagonist, Ofelia. At times it roamed elsewhere, by necessity. Beasts of the Southern Wild, by contrast, sticks like mucilage to the viewpoint of its protagonist, six-year-old Hushpuppy (Wallis, who may turn out to be the youngest actor ever to win an Academy Award). Living an almost feral existence on a wild, low-lying island of the Louisiana coast known as the Bathtub, little Hushpuppy narrates her own vivid life story in the particular manner of kids. There is no discernible past, nor much more than a shadowy, ominous future; Hushpuppy exists fully in whatever moment she happens to find herself in. It's a jaw-droppingly good performance from this pint-sized, first-time actor.

There's a storm coming to the Bathtub, and while it's never mentioned by name, the dreadful reality of Hurricane Katrina permeates this film like the toxic rainbow chemical slicks that coated so much of the Gulf Coast in that disaster's wake. Populated by societal castoffs and a motley assortment of interdependent human beings, the Bathtub is long overdue for a scrubbing, but is comfortable, in its own muggy way, for those who live there. It's a tidal pool of defeated humanity but at the center of it stands firm a fierce little girl with a will of iron and the lyrical imagination of a natural poet. Chief among the other residents is Hushpuppy's vaporous, alcoholic ghost of a father, Wink (Henry). There's also a gaggle of rowdy, perpetually stewed adults and a scattering of begrimed but seemingly happy urchins, but really, this is Hushpuppy's world and everyone else – including her long-gone mother – just lives (or dies, as the case may be) in it.

First-time director Zeitlin co-wrote the script with Lucy Alibar, who penned the stage play from which the film is adapted. Frankly, it's hard to imagine this rollicking, magical-realism filled story in any medium other than film (although it bears resemblance to some fever dreams I vaguely recall having had as a child). Much of the credit for the sheer natural beauty on display here goes to the talents of director of photography Ben Richardson, who plunges you into the sticky-sweet morass of the Bathtub and never really lets you out. (The memory of a celebratory sequence involving fireworks left me grinning for days.)

Someone's bound to ask: Yes, but what's it all about? To that I can only reply: life, and nothing but, Hushpuppy-style.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Beasts of the Southern Wild
From the Vaults: Bats vs. Aurochs
From the Vaults: Bats vs. Aurochs
Before "Beasts of the Southern Wild," there was "Glory at Sea"

Marjorie Baumgarten, July 20, 2012

More Benh Zeitlin
Benh Zeitlin Benefit
Benh Zeitlin Benefit
Helping to defray hospital bills for injured SXSW filmmaker Benh Zeitlin

Spencer Parsons, April 25, 2008

More Benh Zeitlin Films
Wendy
J.M. Barrie’s classic flies on new, grimier wings

Richard Whittaker, March 6, 2020

Wendy
...

Jan. 22, 2021

More by Marc Savlov
The Marksman
Liam Neeson is the action man again in this border thriller

Jan. 15, 2021

Beautiful Something Left Behind
The hard path to healing when kids suffer a death in the family

Jan. 8, 2021

KEYWORDS FOR THIS FILM

Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin, Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly, Lowell Landes, Pamela Harper, Gina Montana, Philip Lawrence, Amber Henry, Joseph Brown

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle