How nice it is to encounter a little but special fantasy tale like “Beasts of the Southern Wild”. Like any excellent fantasy tales, this small film is based on the strong sense of reality filled with bountiful details to be appreciated, and it has a good story and a memorable character who carries the story with her feisty spirit. It looked alien to me at times, but I believed in its small fantasy world, and I was enchanted by its distinctive aspects as I admired its exceptional central performance.
While I saw beauty in its world, I also recognized the hardships surrounding its inhabitants. The background of the film is a town called the Bathtub, a small fishing community located probably somewhere in the offshore bayou area of Louisiana(the movie was shot in the locations in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, where many similar fishing communities actually exist). Mostly isolated from the world outside, the residents of the Bathtub are accustomed to being self-sufficient in their daily struggle to live, and they have good time together whenever there is a chance for that(“The Bathtub has more holidays than the whole rest of the world.”).
One of the residents is a little girl named Hushpuppy(Quvenzhané Wallis). She lives with her dad Wink(Dwight Henry), who is rather strict about how they live. He has his own place, and she has her own place, and she is not allowed to go into her dad’s place. His motif Is clearer as the story progresses; it is implied earlier in the story that he has some problem with his health and he knows that he may not live that long. Although he is not the one who will get the Father of the year award(at one moment, he slaps his daughter for her willfulness), we come to sense that Wink worries about her future without him, and he does what any dads will do in his circumstance, including teaching her how to catch a fish or how to eat a crab more, uh, manly.
But the crisis comes a little too soon for them. Because of the rising sea level and frequent occasions of hurricanes due to global warming(or global climate disruption in a more correct expression), many fishing communities in the offshore areas of Louisiana have been threatened for years, and the Bathtub is no exception; when a very strong hurricane comes upon their area, most of the town is under the water on the next day.
While the other people evacuated in advance before the hurricane arrived, some people including Wink stayed, and they are stubborn about remaining in their hometown. Though they still can catch shrimps and crabs, the life in the Bathtub is harder for them under worsened conditions, but they keep moving on. The water is still high, but they find a way to live at one high spot. When the water gets too salty because of the levee near the town, they try a drastic measure for the problem, which, as one character worries, naturally draws the attention from the outside world.
The director/co-writer Ben Zeitlin, who adapted Lucy Alibar’s play “Juicy and Delicious” with Alibar, did a terrific job of creating believable alternative reality where some aspects of our reality are meshed well together with magical elements. Its budget was only 1.8 million dollars, but Zeitlin and his crews overcame their limits with the nice use of locations and efficient production designs, and the result is a vividly shabby and beautiful vision which sometimes evokes that post-apocalyptic beauty glimpsed from the desolate SF movies like the Mad Max series. In this world, the people use anything they can get to make their homes and the other things for their lives, and a good example is Miss Bathsheba(Gina Montana), who works as not only a teacher for kids but also a town pharmacist. She has many jars in her workplace, and, though I guess she is an experienced professional, I don’t know whether I can eat a ‘medicine’ given by her.
She teaches children about global warming and other things. She talks about some mythic creature named Auroch, which once roamed around the field but now are extinct due to the Ice Age, and that brings one crucial fantasy element to the story. Whether a certain scene is real or imagined is not clear, but it only emphasizes a small but important life lesson Hushpuppy learns through that uncanny moment.
As an imaginative child who sees and listens and interprets the world surrounding her in her own way, Hushpuppy is the little force of nature to be reckoned with, and Quvenzhané Wallis, who was only 7 at the end of the production, gives an unforgettable performance as an innocent, fierce, and, strong-willed little girl who is actually stronger than we initially thought. Wallis’s performance is important in bringing the movie to her character’s viewpoint and thoughts; Hushpuppy can see the world with her innocent wonder(“The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right.”), but she is also able to understand that the nature is not always pretty through hardships(“Strong animals know when your hearts are weak.”).
Her co-performers including are mostly inexperienced actors like her, and they also contributes to the natural mood in the film. Dwight Henry is especially notable as Hushpuppy’s unorthodox dad, and his scenes with Wallis are some of the most emotionally intense moments. Inexperienced actors have that raw quality which cannot be seen from seasoned actors, and Wallis and Henry never fail to deliver in their film.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” has received lots of acclaims since it was shown in the Sundance Film Festival early in this year, where it received the Grand Jury prize along with the Cinematography award for Ben Richardson, who provides a very good realistic atmosphere for the story and its characters to move around. The movie is one of the most notable achievements of this year, and it somehow finds a way to grow on me a lot in spite of my tepid initial reaction(I must point out that its story is not one of its strongest points).
Maybe the End is eventually coming toward the Bathtub, but we know Hushpuppy will survive and move on no matter what happens. And I come to believe that our human race will probably manage to prevail even after our comfortable modern civilization is collapsed by global warming or anything catastrophic in a global scale. Who knows? Like Hushpuppy and her neighbours, we may be a lot more resourceful than we think.