Review: 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' a True Original
By Jared Bowen
BOSTON — In virtually every place it has opened, from Sundance to Cannes, Beasts of the Southern Wild has garnered stellar reviews. For a story of a young girl finding her place in a volatile world, the film is strikingly unconventional. So was the way it was made.
The film sets us down at land’s end, the very tip of Louisiana, where a violent hurricane floods a tiny patch of land known as the Bathtub. A small community, including a 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy and her father Wink, refuse to leave, but they understand the threat.
“One day the water rise so high there ain’t gonna be no bathtub,” says Hushpuppy.
“People have watched their environment transform over the course of their lifetime. It’s taken 40 years and cypress swamps are dying, land is being pulled off into the sea,” said first-time feature director and co-writer Benh Zeitlin, the film’s director. “This island where we shot the film had 200 families on it in 1965 and now there are 20. So all those things were inspired by real life.”
In crafting Beasts, Zeitlin put Hushpuppy at the eye of his storm — she’s a girl unafraid of what’s happening around her and with a resiliency he himself envies.
“The Bathtub is a fearless place. That’s what raises her. It’s not like there’s this kind of parenting, like ‘Watch out for this, be afraid of that, don’t ever go over here.’ Those rules don’t exist,” said Zeitlin. “That toughness, that fearlessness, that’s the bread and butter of the Bathtub, that’s how they survive.”
When her home is flooded, with her father ill and the world seemingly imploded, Hushpuppy copes as any 6-year-old might: with a striking sense of innocence and pure imagination.
“Whole universe plans on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, the entire universe gets busted,” Hushpuppy explains.
“She’s brave and fearless,” Wallis said. “The way that she does her things and the way she wants to do her own things.” Although she grew up in rural Louisiana, Wallis doesn’t think Hushpuppy is much like her at all. “She doesn’t wear pants, her father is dying, she gets to complete anything she wants to and she has more pets than me.”
For his film, Zeitlin cast first-time actors. Wallis was plucked from a parish near the shoot and Dwight Henry, who plays her father, owned a bakery across the street from the film’s audition space. For him, the role was personal.
“After this last storm, after Katrina, you know half our cities stayed behind because, you know, we loved the things that we loved, we loved the homes that we worked so hard to build and the businesses and the people and we have family buried on the same ground. It’ll take the army, the National Guard and the navy to pull me away from all of these things that I love so much,” Henry said.
“I would stay with him while he’s making the donuts until 6 in the morning, talking about everything that’s ever happened to him. So you bring that stuff to set, you bring it to the character, which is how those performances are what they are,” Zeitlin said.
What we see are forces of nature in their own right — now perched on the precipice of stardom.
“The first time that I had seen the film was at the Sundance Film Festival, and I’m sitting in the audience and I’m just nervous, nervous. My hands sweating because I, you know, I wanted people to enjoy the movie. So when the movie was over and 1,500 people stood up in the audience, and clapped, whistled and shouted in joy, you know it really brought chills to my bones that people accepted the film like they accepted it,” Henry said.
As for the film’s 6-year-old star, she says she’s glad to have this experience as a kid. “I want to be young again and do the movie again. And re-do it, and re-do it, and re-do it,” said Wallis, laughing.
The best thing about this film: you have not seen anything like this before. With blazing actors and a fantastic story, we gain new insight about the people of Louisiana and their resilience.
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About the AuthorJared Bowen
Jared Bowen is WGBH’s Emmy Award-winning Executive Editor and Host for Arts.