Beasts of the southern wild


Beware, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” has the power to burst in your mind and bury itself in your heart for weeks to come. A well-deserving winner at both the Cannes (it won the Camera D’Or, a prize exclusively attributed to first-time efforts) and Sundance Film festivals, this triumph of a movie from debuting director Benh Zeitlin is as fierce and moving a film as I can remember seeing in years. And at its center is a performance of sheer determination by a six-year-old actress, no less.

Based on a play by Lucy Alibar, Quvenzhané Wallis plays Hushpuppy (she also serves as our wise narrator), a young girl living on the water side of post-Katrina New Orleans called “the bathtub.” Abandoned by her mother, she is raised by an often-absent father named Wink (Dwight Henry), who provides tough lessons so that she can one day live on her own in this barren woodland dotted with trees and huts devastated by rain and strewn with garbage. The ice caps melting all together is an inevitability, forcing everyone to band together, both to protect home and keep government authority from running them off. In a subplot, aurochs, frozen for thousands of years, defrost and are headed straight for them.

Before anyone screams “exploitation,” you should know that Katrina is barely even mentioned, nor is the rising water used for some woe is us crap. Instead Zeitlin gives us fantasy (there are more than a few scenes that remind of “Where the Wild Things Are”), romanticism (the story of Wink meeting Hushpuppy’s mother is unforgettable) and a story that is one of pride, strength, community, celebration and never backing down. It’s hard not to feel the love of home (parades, fish meals, and fireworks), the close-knit neighborliness, nor can the powerful elements be denied, brilliantly portrayed by Henry, an area native and baker, and phenom-in-her-own-right Wallis, also a native of the area (most of the cast comes from Terrebonne Parrish, where the film was shot).

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Dwight Henry gives his Wink a wild, play-by-his-own-rules lunacy, but at the same time he knows he won’t be around forever and he expects his daughter to find the toughness to fend for herself—these scenes resonate. Wallis is a find, a profoundly smart and fiery heart-melter who I would love to see walk off with a couple of awards by the end of the year. Hers is one heck of a performance which on its own would make “Beasts” well worth seeing. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” does such an outstanding job of making us care for a people and culture that, especially if you live in a big city, seems unbelievable. Added to the mix is the music score, authored by Dan Romer, which appropriately completes this exceptional film.

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