Wild, whimsical thing: Beasts of the Southern Wild
This column was originally posted on Killings.
It’s not an original thought to find child actors distasteful. Those treacly little creatures who over-enunciate lines too often break the fantastic illusion of reality that films try to conjure. Even in hammy, saccharine musicals like Mary Poppins or Anchors Aweigh, or heavy-handed dramas like Jerry McGuire, the over-the-top nature of a child speaking scripted language and moving around the diegetic world is more distracting, frustrating and unnerving than cartoon characters in dance routines or Renee Zellweger’s chipmunk tears.
Don’t get me wrong; this bitterness does not extend to real-life children or ruminations about childhood. Quite the opposite. I have the utmost respect for children and despise it when they are merely positioned as lowly or purely innocent. I do not appreciate when it is implied that children frolic through life blissfully, without any of the fears or pressures that adult life imposes. Nor can I stand the patronising viewpoint that children can only understand things if spoken in the voice of a character from Baby Looney Tunes. Obviously these are oversimplified standpoints, but what I’m trying to say is that I don’t wholly subscribe to the Romantic view of childhood, nor the puritanical. Rather I actively attempt to empathise and understand.
Accordingly, there has to be something incredibly special and subtle about a child actor’s performance and the cinematic world they inhabit, for me to be submerged in the movie. Consequently, when a child actor is good – when you can’t see the puppet strings, do not find yourself looking for them and there isn’t a Shirley Temple sheen placed over the story – I can be really moved; the film can really get to me. And so it was with Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Set in a post-Katrina landscape, a world of swampy surrounds and weather-beaten homes in the Louisiana bayou called ‘The Bathtub’, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a lyrical, mythological and poetic hero’s journey. The hero of this tale, the ‘brave one’, is Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a six-year-old girl who stomps around in partial solitude; resilient and strong, she is mystically connected with the tumultuous forces of nature. Hushpuppy is wise but seeking knowledge, alone but not lonely. Her ailing drunkard father Wink (Dwight Henry), forcefully asserts independence onto Hushpuppy, preparing her for the not-so-distant future when he will no longer be around. Hushpuppy’s mother is an invisible figure, only present in Hushpuppy’s mind, representing love and hope as well as loss and confusion. Wink’s lessons are both functional and emotional: fishing trips are offset by moments where Hushpuppy is ostracised by her unstable father. Reacting to the realities of impending orphanhood, Hushpuppy both absorbs the wisdom of her teacher’s stories and the practicalities of their poverty-stricken existence, while rejecting this looming tragedy by falling deeper into her powerful imagination.
Beasts, the debut film from director and co-writer Benh Zeitlin, presents a timely tale of melting icecaps, life and death, but this film may be too whimsical for some viewers. Likewise, while mixing reality with pseudo-spirituality, Zeitlin avoids a serious social or political statement. It’s not a flawless film – the metaphors are somewhat saturated and overt, and there are some questionable peripheral performances, but the tone and the floating sensibility struck a chord with me.
Beasts combines an outstanding performance from Wallis, an intense creature whose looks and movements say as much as her words, with a rite-of-passage story that doesn’t overly preach or romanticise. As Hushpuppy, Wallis is the heart of this film; her weighty performance embodies the film’s wavering sense of doom and hope, youth and maturity. Her slight yet strong presence balances life’s minor and major troubles evenly, as Beasts is injected with equal doses of harsh reality and wonderfully weird fantasy. It is refreshing to see a film with a young female protagonist who holds her own while unwittingly grasping at the unknown. The character of Hushpuppy, who tackles the world with a grubby face and fierce disposition, serves as an antidote to too many five-to-twelve year old female characters, many of whom play the role of precocious younger-sister/sage caricatures, doling out advice to their less wise, far older companions.
The philosophical undertones of Beasts become the overtone through Hushpuppy’s smarts and wily nature: everything is connected here, be it animals, humans and nature generally. Fantastically, the film never varies from her child’s viewpoint, never undermining the power of the sensory and the importance of the elemental, which are at once imperative and confusing as she navigates her place in the world. Beasts of the Southern Wild will be labelled as Where the Wild Things Are meets Tree of Life, with a strong dose of Treme and each of these cultural components can be felt here: through Zeitlin’s set pieces, the situation and the beast-factor. Touchingly counterbalancing human experiences of solitude and dependency, as well as grand themes of family, home and place, Beasts is a tactile and triumphant film that should be explored.