Written by Kristen Lopez
I hate to be the one person to continuously chastise films that are receiving critical acclaim, but it feels as if certain films get a huge wave of people wanting to jump on the bandwagon, and those who disagree are labeled inferior for “not getting it.” Beasts of the Southern Wild is receiving that treatment currently as people scramble to decide where it will land come Oscar time. Recently, the acting from the movie is being praised through several Critics’ Choice Award nominations. And yet, I don’t understand the hype. Yes, the performance from child actress Quvenzhane Wallis is fantastic, but that’s all I noticed. The film is a surreal blend of magical realism and stark reality that never forms into anything. Outside of tiny Hushpuppy (Wallis), the other characters are inebriated adults who scream instead of talk. The film never slows down to present a relationship; content to talk in clichés. Wallis’ performance is a must-see; just don’t expect to remember much beyond that.
In a Delta community known as the Bathtub, little Hushpuppy (Wallis) lives with her drunken father Wink (Dwight Henry). Hushpuppy lives with the constant reminder that one day she’ll have to fend for herself. As a storm brews and threatens to destroy the Bathtub, its arrival almost marks the return of an extinct species that are connected to Hushpuppy herself.
It’s apparent the film is weaving a mystical story within a real-life framework. The actual “beasts” of the film can be interpreted several ways from the literal to the metaphorical. I doubted the extinct aurochs actually arrive by film’s end. The implication is that the aurochs represent the people of the Bathtub, both remnants of a way of life that will soon become extinct. It’s been mentioned that the Bathtub is possibly an allusion to Hurricane Katrina victims, but I think that’s reading too much into it. The best way to take Beasts of the Southern Wild is as its own story that possibly borrows from real life bayous of past and present. The actual community is showcased in expansive long shots or aerial shots that show the swampy beauty of the community itself. The various people who inhabit the Bathtub are far from perfect, but as Hushpuppy’s teacher Miss. Bathsheba (Gina Montana) says, “They take care of their own.”
The issues lie in how plotless the film feels. The characters have little motivation other than Hushpuppy, and really the little girl is the only character worth sympathizing or enjoying. Wallis is a fantastic actress, being only five when this was filmed. She is in that brand of child stars who act “wise beyond their years,” but here it works. Hushpuppy is more of a parenting figure than any of the adults around her, yet still has that childlike wonderment of being able to pick up an animal and hear its heartbeat. The film does try to make her a more mystical character than is necessary, but this girl is fantastic! Dwight Henry is also good as Hushpuppy’s father Wink. He’s stuck in the stereotypical angry drunk role, but he does share some tender moments with Hushpuppy.
I think the lack of strong adults lessens the impact of this film. It’s hard to understand how Hushpuppy has survived in the environment she’s living in, and you never really root for any of the adults. Wink is a drunk who loves his daughter yet has no problems beating her, or leaving her alone (even though it is later revealed he’s been hospitalized). The second half of the movie presents a more convincing image of Wink as a caring father, but the first half feels “been there, done that.” The other adult characters are crass and content to drink with the exception being Miss. Bathsheba. I think the film would have been stronger with less of the manic desire to make all the adults loud and crude. There’s no reason the film couldn’t settle down to present some semblance of coherence, and that doesn’t happen. It’s understandable that living in a place like The Bathtub is harsh with little to praise, but at after the storm destroys the town and the residents are evacuated it’s hard to see these social workers as the enemy. The film has the Bathtub residents escape because, like the aurochs, their remnants of an extinct species, but considering the lives of the children involved it’s hard to understand the adult’s decision to go back.
Beasts of the Southern Wild has an astounding performance from Wallis and Henry, but little else. The plot, what little there is, falls too heavily into cliché and drunkenness that ultimately presents an image of these people are irresponsible and removed from reality. The mystical realism angle is beautiful, and does lead to some tender moments. It’s a watch for those wanting to stay in the loop with the upcoming awards nominations.