Director: Benh Zeitlin
Writers: Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin
Stars: Quevenzhane Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly
The audience collectively gasped when the trailer for this film premiered in our local art theater. Ouvenzane (Nazie) Wallis can captivate an audience with just a few words or a glance. This young lady may be a novice actress, but she certainly has the presence to reach others’ emotions. I was stunned to learn after seeing the film that this is Wallis’ breakout role. Seldom do skilled actors serve as ably as either the narrator or main character for a film of this scope. Ms. Wallis managed both.
At five, Wallis snuck into the library where the auditions for her role would be. Her mother knew the part was slated for children six to nine, but the rules were changed when she defeated 4,000 other children for the role.
The film’s about Hushpuppy, a six-year-old girl who lives on the wrong side of a levee in Louisiana. Hushpuppy lives in a near-primordial world, ruled in part by a six-year-old’s perceived mixture of science and fantasy.
Wallis isn’t the only newbie performer. Dwight Henry, who plays Hushpuppy’s father, Wink, is also a novice actor. Generally, if you’re going to put a beginner in such a high-profile role, you give them a veteran to support. This was quite a risk in today’s film-making environment which relies heavily on the tried-and-true and formulaic. Their onscreen portrayal is anything but beginner level. Sometimes frightening, sometimes tear-inducing. Both performers are people to watch. I expect to see the film and cast up for several awards.
Benh Zeitlin, who both directed and co-wrote this film along with his summer-camp friend, Lucy Alibar, is in no small part to praise for the success of the script. When he and Wallis went over the script, he allowed her to mark out words which didn’t seem right. If she was going to say the words for him, he let her own them.
Dan Romer’s soundtrack is the perfect accompaniment. Whether we’re seeing schoolchildren’s lessons or a hurricane rising, the music manages to hit the right notes without overshadowing the acting. The sound’s poetic, resonating the flavor of Louisiana’s Cajun country.
For a film which took less than 2M to make, everything fits seamlessly and feels of much finer quality than epics costing many times more. Probably the best aspect of Beasts is how much it makes you think about the world afterward. This is not a film you can simply watch and stow away in your memory. Beasts of the Southern Wild is not just about survival in one of the harshest areas of the planet, it’s about sticking together as a community. Hushpuppy talks often about the universe and the rules that guide it in a very holistic manner. Lessons abound for all of us if we’re only willing to listen.
I do not recommend this film for small children. There’s violence, language, and difficult situations. Even adults need tissues through various scenes. One thing I will say about Beasts of the Southern Wild is that you won’t forget the story anytime soon, and you won’t think lightly of our ecosystem, either. I’m hoping that Wallis will be the youngest nominee for Best Actress and I believe Henry, Zeitlin, and Romer will receive nominations (if not awards) as well.
Rebecca McFarland Kyle, August 2012