“That’s my beautiful place under the water.”
“Everything beautiful is gone.”
Review by David Feltman
Fairy tales work by honestly dealing with darker truths. We feel safer, especially as children, because the story is behind the barrier of fantasy. But the human nature that fuels stories like “Cinderella” and “Bluebeard,” the greed, the lust, the violence, are all true to life. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” has the veneer of a fairy tale, but its overt real world parallels make it heart breaking.
In a thinly veiled account of post Katrina-like circumstances, the story is told from the point-of-view of the 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) living in a flooded southern community with her ailing father Wink (Dwight Henry). The unreliable narration of the young Wallis provides a fantastic element to the story. She imagines giant aurochs being released from melting ice caps and slowly making their way to her ruined town. When she shouts at her father, “I wish you would die and when you die I’m going to go to your grave and eat birthday cake all by myself,” her father drops dead…at least for a moment. The magical realism lent to the film by using the child’s POV makes it difficult to discern what’s really happening, but it effectively distills the simultaneous beauty and horror of her world falling apart.
Wallis, cast when she was 5 and 6 when the film was shot, turns in an amazing performance. Her innocence and single-minded determination provides the axis on which the whole film turns. Henry’s role as a dying man in a sheer panic can be tough to watch. Sure he shouts many of his lines, but given his circumstances it’s tough to imagine someone who wouldn’t be screaming and railing. His only concern is insuring Wallis’ safety, but it’s a task he is no longer capable of. As a result, we see Henry as both a guardian and a monster through Wallis’ filter.
There’s a lot of political wallpaper that one might misconstrue to be advocating one viewpoint or another, but it is honestly inert. Anything political is simply backdrop to a soul-crushing tale of a father/daughter relationship tempered by love and fear and violence. Director Benh Zeitlin robs the film of some of its potential hi-def beauty by filming in a grainy, faux-documentary 16 mm, but this is easily forgiven considering the emotional impact he achieves on screen. The score is triumphant and Wallis is confident as she marches on in the film’s closing moments, but you can’t help but feel the despair of her bleak future underneath all of that hope. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a rare and incredible film that you should not miss.