I almost always find myself cheering on any independent films that get nominated for best picture. Beasts of the Southern Wild is that dark horse indie film that has come so far. This is the first feature film directed by Behn Zeitlin (nominated for best director!), and it was made on a budget of only 1.3 million dollars and only had a crew of sixty-five people in a coastal town in Louisiana. It has won numerous awards from various film festivals around the world, including Sundance and Cannes. And now it rightly sits forever as one of the best of the year, competing for four awards at the Oscars, including Best Picture
The story takes place in a disappearing bit land at the southernmost part of Louisiana called The Bathtub. There is a quick explanation, all from the perspective of six year old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), that the ice is melting and causing the water to rise up. The land folks up north have built a levy cutting off everyone down in The Bathtub and society seems to have crumbled into one last mardi gras. Alcohol flows as much as the crawfish and the nights are lit up by fireworks. Hushpuppy thinks they’ve got it best, but all that will change when the water rises.
Hushpuppy seems to know she doesn’t have an easy life. Her mother swam away and now she uses an old Michael Jordan jersey to make-believe she is around. Her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), is trying to protect Hushpuppy as their world becomes more threatened, but his poor health is catching up to him. He has a short fused temper that can be startling, but he and Hushpuppy have some good moments together in his makeshift boat made from the bed of a truck. Most of the time, Hushpuppy is on her own, in this dirty, chaotic, unstructured world. Watching her light the stove could give some parents nightmares, but at least she put on that helmet first.
Quvenzhané Wallis’s performance as Hushpuppy made her the youngest person ever nominated for best actress, at only nine years old. I’m not sure exactly how old Wallis was while filming, but in the film, it doesn’t look like she could be any older than six. It’s amazing how this little girl can look so angry, stoic and naturally wild at times. What I believe earned Wallis this nomination was the way her character is the focus of the film and how she carries that focus so well. While I doubt she will win (the Academy seems to favor the more seasoned), I look forward to the amazing possibilities of Wallis’s career.
Beasts seems to have a beautifully existential core. Even at Hushpuppy’s young age, she is thinking about preserving her life’s story for scientists to discover in the future and students will learn about her. Granted, at one point she is recording her story in crayon drawings on the inside of a cardboard box while the house is on fire, but that’s not the point. She has a surprisingly wise understanding that she is just a small piece in a big universe and that all the pieces have to fit together to make everything work. Ask another child about the universe and you might only get a Lego Star Wars commercial.
Beasts is such a beautifully raw, yet strangely magical film. We get a gritty, yet hopeful story of strong, lackluster people willing to stay and die with their disappearing home, with a feeling of fantasy and folklore mixed in. Really, it’s hard to put into words how wonderful and refreshing this film is, you just have to see it. Believe me, it’s like no film you have ever seen before.
“When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me flying around in invisible pieces.”