The relationship between a young child and their parent is a well tread path in literature and film. Often artists working within their mediums tend to over simplify this unique relationship, by either turning it into a lesson for the unwilling or frustrated parent, or worse creating a situation were the child grows into a fully fledged mini-adult by the end of the film – a tiny statue carved in exaltation of the adult’s world.
Occasionally a film is created, through clarity of vision, commitment to truth, or total serendipity, that taps directly into the complexity of the real. This is not complexity that comes from circuitous plotting. The stories that delve into the complexity of the real are often deceptively simple for theirs is an emotional complexity that allows an adolescent child to both love and hate their parents at the same time. When a film taps into the truth of these relationships each of us feels the swirl of emotions without cognitive awareness. Beasts of the Southern Wild is just such a film.
Beasts is a masterful and poetic work from first time feature director Benh Zeitlin. The fact that it is reminiscent of To Kill a Mocking Bird or Where the Wild Things Are, two other films that focus on the world through the eyes of a single child, bodes well for young Zeitlin, whose maturity as a filmmaker outpaces his slim resume.
In Beasts, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in the Bathtub, a community of people living in the wilderness of the Louisiana gulf outside of the constraints of modern urban society. Here life is more exciting and dangerous, and one must be strong to survive.
At school, Hushpuppy learns of the Aurochs, mythic beasts like giant horned boars. These creatures serve as visual metaphors for the way Hushpuppy engages with the world around her. Aurochs are tough and loyal, but the violent world does not allow them the luxury of showing weakness or weeping for their dead.
The narrative in Beasts is poetic, visually driven and allows the plot to move loosely from moment to moment, but as with great poetry, even when the specific details are confusing or difficult to pin down, the emotional content builds throughout Beasts’ 93 minutes.
Much has been made of Wallis’ abilities in the lead role. Though the diminutive 5 year old lives up to the hype, we should applaud Zeitlin as well, for his ability to get such a performance from this talented child.
Dwight Henry also turns in a stunning performance as Wink. This father is troubled both by his irresponsibility and the sickness, which threatens his life. Henry must balance Wink’s aggression and need for Hushpuppy to grow up strong, with a deep vulnerability. For good or ill, Henry’s performance will be over shadowed by Wallis’, but without him Beasts would only have half of the equation.
Whatever the mixture of talents that went into Beasts of the Southern Wild from actors, director, writers to crew and community the end result is a very special film that takes its subject, the strength of a young girl in a difficult environment, very seriously. Even if Zeitlin never again manages to recapture the various intangibles that helped mold Beasts, he has left us a film that is worthy of repeated viewings for years to come.
I have faith though that Zeitlin’s is an enduring talent and I wait expectantly for his next offering.