This indie film is a critics-darling (both 2012 Sundance and Cannes awards). “Beasts of the Southern Wild” has a unique perspective on the “other” America, the forgotten down-and-out who lives outside the American Dream, whose survival is so precarious that there is only magic, no dream. This is an America that few viewers know about, and a type of poverty within our borders that has seldom been depicted in cinema. The sobering combination of magic and poverty in “Beast of the Southern Wild” suggests “The Fall”(see August 16, 2011 review) meets “A Winter’s Bone” ( see my December 2010 review at womensmemoirs.com.) Hushpuppy, a beautiful and winsome six-year-old black girl, lives with her father, Wink, in “the Bathtub,” a group of shacks along the Louisiana bayou (post-Hurricane Katrina). Hushpuppy’s mama swam away one morning, leaving father and daughter to fear the time when the little girl would have no one in the world to protect her. “Everyone loses the thing that made them”, Hushpuppy tells her father matter-of-factly.
Magical realism interlaces with dialogue: icecaps melt; prehistoric creatures, which look like wild boars, start appearing without warning. The child’s fear is foreshadowed by both the imaginary and the real probability that grownups will leave her to fend for herself. On the brink of orphanhood, Hushpuppy faces epic catastrophe with strength and optimism, resilience and imagination.
What saves this film is the extraordinary six-year-old actress, Quvenzhané Wallis, whose face registers emotion without dialogue. And, for this film, that is crucial to not rejecting the film outright. I wanted to love this film, but I can only recommend it to those few who love cinema so much that they want to see the experimental and bizarre, in spite of narrative flaws and editing deficiencies.
My review may be the only “mixed”- let alone negative- one out there. The narrative is weak. The symbolism of the magical wild boars (actually, aurochs found in cave paintings) is not rendered clearly, so that when they appear on screen, the viewer doesn’t quite know what to make of them. Certainly a sequence of visual cues and dialog are needed to guide the audience to understand the world through Hushpuppy’s eyes: a haunting world, without easily defined boundaries between the imagined and real.
If you have the patience to see a movie that lacks deft editing and where the narrative virtually stops, but also have the curiosity to see a poverty that resembles Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer without the romanticization–a raft made of auto body parts floating towards the levee, for example, –you may want to see “Beasts of the Southern Wild”. Quvenzhané Wallis’ performance alone is worth the price of a ticket.