Sunday, 2 September 2012
FILM REVIEW: BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
In a region of Louisiana known as The Bathtub, lives six-year-old Hushpuppy and her father, Wink. But don't let the cutesy-pie names fool you, for Behn Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild, however fablesque, doesn't deal in sunshine, lollipops and happy ever afters.
Wink (Dwight Henry) practises a form of tough love on his little charge. With her mother leaving not long after her birth, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) has only Wink to provide for her, and Wink, who has a serious medical condition, knows that when he's no longer around to take care of her, the world won't go easy on his daughter just because she's a little girl.
But the pint-sized Hushpuppy is as defiant of her father as her hair is of gravity, and when her world starts falling down around her -- with Wink's ailing health, and quite literally when The Bathtub floods and the government moves in to relocate the residents -- the little girl heads off in search of her long-gone mother.
Adapting Lucy Alibar's Juicy and Delicious stageplay with the playwright, Zeitlin has opened up the universe of Hushpuppy (originally written as a boy) by grounding the story in reality, albeit one as unfamiliar to mainstream American audiences as the rest of the world; Hushpuppy, Wink and their rabble of friends and neighbours, black and white, are the people that the Bush administration "forgot" in the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina.
And it would be easy to view Beasts of the Southern Wild as a post-Katrina parable, or even as a warning on climate change. When Hushpuppy realises her father is not well, there are rumblings in the ice caps and mythological beasts known as aurochs are unleashed. (Are they real, or manifestations of a little girl's fears and anxieties of a world in which she has no control?)
But Zeitlin is never heavy-handed nor the film overly heavy: Hushpuppy's observation that the universe depends on everything fitting together just right (respect the food chain; honour they father; love thy neighbour) is about as didactic as the film gets.
Of course, we're viewing this world through the eyes of Hushpuppy, a world where politics has no place amongst the beauty and danger of the natural and man-made environs. Often only dressed in a singlet and underpants, Hushpuppy is at home among the long grass, and the handful of animals she keeps; animals she knows she'd have to eat if circumstances dictate.
Used to spending long periods of time on her own, Hushpuppy even lives in separate quarters to Wink. Accustomed to the tough love of her father, but not above daydreaming of her mother, Hushpuppy converses with the clothes which once belonged to her; strewn about the house we suspect Wink never enters.
And if there is one truly great marvel in this small marvel of a film -- by a first-time director, made on a shoe-string budget, with an original vision -- it is the performance of Quvenzhane Wallis. A first-time actor and just six years old when cast, Wallis imbues Beasts' little heroine with mix of bravado and innocence that simply can't be faked. "I'm the man!" she screams at one point, and you'd better believe it.
Even if, ultimately, the film didn't affect me emotionally in the way I had hoped (too high expectations and my own fault entirely), Wallis's Hushpuppy leaves an indelible mark. In the pantheon of young female heroines traversing worlds real and imagined - Alice, Dorothy, even Coraline - Hushpuppy rings true: a 'beast' who captures your heart completely.