Quvenzhane' Wallis, Dwight Henry, Gina Montana, Jovan Hathaway, Levy Easterly, Lowell Landes, Nicholas Clark, Pamela Harper
Benh Zeitlin, Lucy Alibar (Stage Play)
Dolby Digital 5.1 English Audio;English and Spanish Subtitles;The Making of;Theatrical Trailer;Sneak Peeks ( Stoker Theatrical Trailer, The Blu-ray Experience, Fox World Cinema, and The Sessions); Blu-ray adds quite a bit more
You are essential.
In your infinitesimal smallness, you complete the world and make it the perfect place that it is. Without you, the world would be flawed or at least incomplete. You give the world that extra spark of whatever it is that it needs to maintain itself.
Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane' Wallis) thinks and feels in a way that captures all the magic, wonder and tragedy that a child-like mind can create. She is capable of simultaneously seeing how she fits in the world, while also holding deep within herself the blame when some tragedy befalls her. it's not that she dwells on her life's tragedies. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. She merely acknowledges these tragedies, especially the loss of her mother, with both a sense of resignation and resilience.
Quvenzhane' Wallis, a newcomer to acting, was five-years-old when cast in the lead role of co-writer/director Benh Zeitlin's Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Award Prize-winning film Beasts of the Southern Wild, a film unlike anything else you will see this year and without question one of the best films you could possibly see in 2012. By the time filming ended, Wallis was a seven-year-old who'd managed to serve up one of the most miraculous child performances that Hollywood has ever scene, a performance so authentic and vulnerable that it brings to mind the similarly wondrous performance offered by Victoire Thivisol, a four-year-old actress who blew audiences away in the film Ponette, a French film in which she played a young girl grieving the death of her mother.
Hushpuppy lives alongside her father, Wink (newcomer Dwight Henry), in what she calls "the prettiest place on earth." It's an area that most Americans would like hell on earth, a ravaged community called Bathtub that exists offshore of New Orleans and is isolated from anything resembling humanity by levees that have rendered it nearly uninhabitable and likely to be destroyed the next time a major storm comes along. Truthfully, Bathtub is pretty much already destroyed - it's just that no one among the village's few inhabitants is willing to acknowledge it and they all co-exist on what could best be described as an absolute commitment to survival and a relentlessly tribal spirit that seemingly renders them able to overcome just about any obstacle.
It's difficult to describe just how wondrous a performance that Wallis offers, but she is so lacking in pretense and self-awareness that it's nearly impossible to not surrender to the magical and mystical world that she creates, a world that can be both self-destructive and filled with intimidating beasts that seem to penetrate her childlike imagination in a way that feels larger than life yet only threatening in that way that a child can fear the monster that they absolutely know is hiding beneath the bed. Wallis, who'd never even trained as an actress when she beat out hundreds of auditioners for the role, takes a character who could have radiated every wounded child cliche' in the book and turns her into one of the most emotionally resonant and appealing characters in quite some time.
While it would be true that Wallis's Hushpuppy is front and center within the film, her character wouldn't resonate nearly as deeply as she does without the similarly miraculous performance by fellow newcomer Dwight Henry as Wink, her father. Henry, a pastry shop owner whose primary focus in life is his wife and five children, is simply amazing as Wink, a man whom you initially grow uncomfortable with until Henry gives us the fullness of his character in a way that doesn't necessarily change the discomfort as much as it gives us both the back story and at least some of the reasons behind Wink's emotional complexity. Henry's paternal instinct feels authentic, perhaps because it is an authentic part of who he is, yet he also is clearly acting in the best sense of that word. Henry manages to find places deep within Wink's psyche' that are awesome to behold, whether he's struggling with his own demons or doing everything in his power to fiercely protect the daughter he was left with after her mother "swam away," or at least that's the story he's told her.
There are so many scenes in Beasts of the Southern Wild that work magnificently, especially once a hurricane-like storm ravages the community and Hushpuppy is left to wonder if she, through an act that had just unfolded, had somehow caused this devastation upon her community. It's not surprising that the film was actually shot in the tattered bayous of post-Katrina New Orleans, areas where this kind of devastation is a heartbreaking part of daily life.
There are traces of Malick's The Tree of Life and Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are to be found within Beasts of the Southern Wild, though there is quite literally no doubt that this film is vastly superior to both because it accomplishes the awesome universality Malick had sought while also beautifully capturing the innocence and complexity of the childhood experience that was certainly present in Jonze's film but not on anywhere near this level.
D.P. Ben Richardson's camera work is simply astounding here, serving as the perfect companion for Zeitlin's vision for the film and somehow managing to turn this desolate, mythical war zone into a land that can simultaneously look hopeful and wondrous and awesome. Zeitlin collaborates with Dan Romer to create a fantastic original score for the film, a score brimming with possibility and life and wonder and honesty. Even Stephani Lewis's costuming leaves a lasting impression, possessing both a transparency that works beautifully with each character down to even the most minor of appearances.
While Wallis and Henry front the film, Beasts of the Southern Wild is that rare modestly budgeted indie film that manages to have a cast that shines from top to bottom. This ensemble cast should be mentioned anytime this upcoming awards season when an ensemble acting award is given, because truly these actors capture a marvelous communal spirit that takes the film's themes and messages and drive them home in ways big and small.
The best films, at least for this film critic, are the films that manage to transport you emotionally and physically into their world. Indeed, I found myself completely and utterly immersed in the world of Bathtub and into the lives of Hushpuppy, Wink and all those who surrounded them. I laughed, I cried, I contemplated, I wondered, I imagined and I left the theater a better human being than when I had entered it.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of the best films of 2012 and, perhaps even more importantly, one of the most visionary films of the past decade.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic