Beasts of the Southern Wild is a film that will divide audiences. Some will find it meaningful, beautiful and touching while others will dismiss it as pretentious tripe. If you don't like anything artsy however, I'd probably give it a miss. I didn't really know exactly what I thought of it after watching. The more I think about it though the more I liked it. However, after a promising opening, I thought it badly lost its way in its second half. In the film there is a scene where a man says that he keeps the wrappers of all the (something I assume you'd only find in the southern states of America) 'chicken biscuits' he eats because the smell of them makes him feel 'cohesive'. Hushpuppy replies with her usual determination that she wants to be cohesive too. It's worth noting then, that I felt there was a lack of this very quality throughout the film. Although perhaps this is intentional, as how can this story remain cohesive in a world where nothing is predictable? In a world where the environment itself tries to bring you unstuck?
What the film has in large supply is heart. Set in the south of the United States we learn that a levee has been built and anyone south of the levee is forgotten. When the rains come it is the people who live in these areas who suffer. There are strong echoes of Hurricane Katrina with this subject matter.
The main character Hushpuppy (played by Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father Wink (played by Dwight Henry) are our two strongest connections to the strange reality of the film. The world they live in is so utterly foreign to ours. They live in the 'Bathtub': a bayou slum where they have 'more holidays than anywhere else in the world' according to Hushpuppy's daddy and her. We get some chaotic flashes of the party life they live on these 'holidays' with everyone having a good time. During this section of the film is a beautifully shot scene where we see Hushpuppy run with two sparklers in her hands. It is partly from this that we feel the real sense of freedom these people have and why they would fight to hold onto it, and why they stay where they do. These characters themselves may be the titular beasts of the southern wild. They feel like they belong where they are.
There are some lovely elements to the lives of the characters. Like how their funerals are big parties with no tears, how they are content with what they have in life and the imaginative freedom they have to believe what they want. They are happy where they are and who are we to try to say that their lives aren't what they should be?
The film's narrative is a strange one, and the way character is revealed to us is unconventional. At its true core it is a film about a father trying to give his daughter the strength to survive in this world without him. But the way he goes about it is unusual. He actually comes across as a bit insane. The way he goes about showing love and caring for Hushpuppy are not the usual representations of such things on film, but that isn't to say they aren't also legitimate, although harsh methods.
The film shows that there's a joyfulness still to be found even among the people who live in this forgotten part of the world, and whose very existence there is precarious. Maybe life for them isn't as bad as we might think it is. Although, their houses are barely sound and their clothes and surroundings are filthy – it made me feel like I needed a good scrub down just looking at it. There was always alcohol to be found, and there were plenty of animals to cook for 'Feed up time'.
I think this could be one of those films that you take from it what you choose to. Some people will get a lot out of it, while others will just think it pointless. I thought it started with a nice visual style and promise and overall I did enjoy it but it was patchy and could have used some tighter plotting during the second half.
Hushpuppy looks like she could be blown away in the first scene as a strong wind is present. She picks up animals one by one and listens to their hearts and their chatter. Sometimes she thinks they are just saying that they are hungry or need to poop, but other times she thinks they are speaking in codes. She has this idea that everything in the universe is connected and it's one that she repeats more than once. She reasons that if one thing upsets this balance then everything will be thrown off its axis.
This idea of everything being connected is one that is unusual in someone so young, but it is something she is taught by her teacher and that she would be very aware of with the environment being such a huge part of their existence. There's a flood in the film and while she and her father and many of their friends are safe not everyone is. She comments that for many creatures and others the end of the world already came and now they're down below trying to breathe through all that water. The way she says these words is with a stoical kind of acceptance.
In the film's reality, there are also pre-historic creatures called aurochs, and before I saw the film I thought they would play a more prominent role. What they symbolised is up to interpretation but I believe them to demonstrate the inner strength that Hushpuppy has. The idea of creatures returning to life from their extinction caused by an ice age is paralleled nicely through her discovery of the strength to face the world that has been asleep inside her all along.
There are moments of light-heartedness throughout, like when the character Walrus doesn't realise that it has flooded and steps out his front door, and sinks straight into the depths of the floodwater that has risen overnight.
However, Hushpuppy is the main strength of the film's narrative. She is adorable and sees the world in her own way that is both child-like and sometimes deceptively adult; she has the wisdom of someone far beyond her years at times. The young actress Quvenzhané Wallis delivers a spellbinding performance. Keep your eyes on her. If this is anything to go by she is destined for big things.
It's a film that I'd really have liked to watch again before writing this review. I wasn't sure what I thought of it after it ended and while now I lean more towards an appreciation of its daring and unusual narrative flow and artistic values I would like to have the chance to re-evaluate certain aspects.
The two leads are strong and without them the film would be nothing. It's hard to review a film that is so unusual and that will have such different meaning for different people. It has done very well on the festival circuit, winning awards at Sundance and Cannes to name a few, and if nothing else it is a reminder that there are still new things that we can do with narrative film. The music is powerful, and brings an extra touch of heart to the production. It is nicely shot showing both the harsh beauty of nature and life but refusing to descend into bleakness.
I recommend going into this film with an open-mind, being prepared to witness something unusual and not to have everything fit in a nice little box. Some movies are great to switch off to, but I'd recommend switching on before watching Beasts of the Southern Wild.