The following review was originally published in August on CinemaBeach, where I post reviews every Thursday. Stay tuned for a follow-up piece within the next few weeks detailing my thoughts on how the film will do at the Oscars. Will Quvenzhane Wallis stand a chance of getting a Best Actress nomination? All of that will be talked about soon. Until then, please check out my review for further information.
In a summer that has given us big, loud movies with no human emotion, there is one film that chooses to be different. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a film that received critical acclaim at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and is already being considered one of this year’s best. The story follows Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) and her father Wink (Dwight Henry) as they try to survive in the desolate, rundown town called The Bathtub. The story deals with their struggle to think positively as tragedies begin to happen. Is this breakout film an inspirational tale of the human condition, or an exploitation of poverty?
From the opening voiceover given by Hushpuppy, the Bathtub sounds like the place to be. Almost every day is a celebration involving fireworks and drinking. While the story progresses to a more centralized story involving Hushpuppy and an abusive father who manipulates her daughter to be masculine, the tone never seems to disappear. At times, people are angry about houses burning or their town being flooded, but they manage to enjoy themselves. These are people who don’t care to venture into the city and live a normal life. As long as they can survive off of the land, they will be fine.
While it is a cheerful story about overcoming tragedy, it does feel a little like it encourages poverty. The character Wink is very adamant about never leaving the Bathtub, and the way he projects that onto Hushpuppy comes across as continuing a legacy of ignorance. Hushpuppy is a hopeful character, but not one who can avoid manipulation from her sole parent. This creates a paradox that makes their celebrations feel somewhat depressing. It is nice to see a unique tale where there is a triumph of the will, but it still feels like bad parenting.
This could be why the movie is considered to be one of the year’s best. However, despite a flawed scenario, it is all in the two leads’ relationship. Dwight Henry manages to play a tough father in a way that easily shifts from menacing to loving with conviction. His masculinity agenda may seem misleading, but it adds to his character’s simple minded ways. Quvenzhane Wallis is the real stand out, whose innocence provides an endearing tone to the narration and makes her journey to find her mother all the more intriguing. These two manage to carry the film over the more baffling elements and create one of the better father-daughter relationships in cinema this year.
The other element that makes this movie stand out is the cinematography by Ben Richardson and the directing by first timer Benh Zeitlin. Together they manage to create a small wasteland into a land of wonder. Even though their homes are primitive shanties, there is a beauty to their placement along the backdrop of trees and wildlife. This works especially well with the quick pacing and the use of a metaphorical story about aurochs that parallel Hushpuppy’s journey. It is the visual aspect of Beasts of the Southern Wild that keeps this from feeling like an average movie about poverty.
Overall, it is a competent film with two solid lead performances. The exploration of tragedy through an optimistic lens gives this film an authentic edge. It is a shame that the poverty subtext at times feels a little too forceful, though that may be the point. This leaves a false sense of survival through masculine parenting and while it helps to establish the demeanor of Hushpuppy, it only hurts the story’s emotional climax. Even then, Hushpuppy’s journey of experiencing life is at times a revelation. Beasts of the Southern Wild may be a well-made film with strong performances and cinematography, but it needed a stronger sense of self to make it more enjoyable.