Beasts of The Southern Wild (2012)

by Matt Piucci

Beasts of the Southern Wild is clearly a labor of love, to which the oft–maligned term “amateur” should be applied. I use the term in its original sense, as the product of those who “love” film. This is not to imply that the filmmakers are somehow less than professional. On the contrary, the success of the film is owed largely to the finesse of these dedicated pros who did not have a whole lot of spare cash on hand. As a musician, I get an inkling of the difficulty of producing the final product when making recordings. But film is several layers more complicated and music is but a part of its whole. The collaborative effort required to pull off anything at all staggers my mind. What these folks have done is truly remarkable. Even with huge potential production complications, including filming on water, using exclusively non-actors with the lead going to a child of five, this film is seamless.Beasts of The Southern Wild

I had some trouble placing Beasts in its historical filmic context, but the term “magical realism” is close. This is usually associated with South American works, typically novels like those of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges. As a director, Guillermo de Toro also comes to mind. But that description is inadequate, this film is also in the same spirit as works by Terry Gilliam or Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Part Fisher King, part City of Lost Children.

I figure that those who read this now are not going to be thrown off by a spoiler, so here goes. At the beginning of the film it was not clear to me what continent, or even what century, the film was depicting. Or even if it was intended to be perceived as a real place. Several oblique references later, it dawned on me that this was a VERY poor enclave on the outskirts of New Orleans, probably right before Hurricane Katrina.

In a project with little money and an ambitious script, tone is absolutely essential; there is no way this would be believable if the cast were not perfect, particularly the lead. I was told by one of the producers who attended a Q and A session after a screening in Berkeley that they looked at 4000 children, scouring Southern Louisiana for the role that they knew would make or break the film. They occasioned on a then five year old with the fabulous name of Quvenzhané Wallis for the lead part of Hushpuppy. This young girl possesses a fire and determination that border on the supernatural. Miracles do happen.

You know how one can listen to Mozart and comment, “that is an amazing piece”, and then you learn that he was six when he wrote it? It turns the world upside down, children are not supposed to be that deep, that talented. The entire film rests on young Wallis’ shoulders, for it is the child’s view of this world that gives it all of its magic. There is no way a rational person would see what the filmmakers apparently saw in this movie - that it could work. But art is not rational. I would love to hear the production meeting where somebody says, “hey, let’s take some wild boars and strap some horns on their heads, blow a lot of mist into the air and everyone will believe they are giant mythical creatures from Antarctica.” But it is believable, and largely due to this amazing young girl. In Gilliam’s The Fisher King, we know that only Robin William’s character can see that giant creature with the red lights for eyes. We understand what happened to him and why he saw what he saw. But Hushpuppy is not crazy; those beasts from Antarctica are real to her. She is just a child who has not had her fantasy world “educated” out of her. And the beasts seem no more mythical than the oil derricks that are located just outside the “Bathtub”, as its residents call it.

HushpuppyWallis is not the only one who shines; Dwight Henry, the man who plays her father is also remarkable. Every actor was convincing as a part of this other world within our own, and none were professionals. They created a full vision of a believable subculture, completely separate from the rest of even Louisiana, which is hardly typically American. The only influence of our culture I saw was the beer bottles. They barely have electricity; there is no running water, no schools, no jobs, only an endless party fueled by food you can catch or grow, and music you make yourself. I’ve seen better looking “houses” at homeless encampments in downtown LA. And the “boat” was the back of a pickup truck strapped to pontoons!

But to the residents of the Bathtub, they are the lucky ones. As Hushpuppy says “other people only have one holiday each year.” It seems the Bathtub party has gone on uninterrupted since the French trappers arrived hundreds of years before.

There were other potential clichés that could have drowned this picture. Global Warming produces giant pigs that were frozen in another age? The genius of the film in this regard is the use of the child’s imaginative but also limited perspective, it is consistent. How did the director cause us to view the relationship between Hushpuppy’s drunken dad Wink and her as loving and not neglect and child abuse? That is a testament to the gentleman who plays Hushpuppy’s dad, in real life a baker who took months to convince he should be in the film. Love is in the eyes, and usually it takes an actor of the caliber of Robert DeNiro or Denzell Washington to convey love and torment in the same glances. I am reminded of the look on DeNiro’s face as the young Vito Corleone in Godfather 2 when his son is very ill. It’s the same look of love, concern and torment. Wink wants Hushpuppy to be tough and independent, even if he knows there are lessons she needs to learn that are beyond his grasp. "You the man, say it!” he screams at her, both in admonition and encouragement. Say it she does and we believe that she believes it too, with his support. His is the second most remarkable performance, after the girl.Father & Daughter

It seems surprising that we would side with this ragtag band of misfits when the government came to “help” them, and take them kicking and screaming to shelters. One look at Hushpuppy in a girlie dress and her utter disdain for it, as if it were eating her alive, was all that is took for us to cheer her on as she and her pals “escaped” back to the Bathtub from their post- hurricane shelters. And I did cheer, although this moment was probably the most preposterous in the entire film.

Despite a thousand reasons why this could have been a horrific joke and I am sure the director and producers heard every one of those thousand reasons, we believe. It is a world that surely we could not accept as a place where a healthy child could prosper. But we do. And we sympathize. And that is the magic of film when it works.

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