(This review is dedicated to film patron, Mr Milan Kocman from Clique Media.)[dc]O[/dc]n paper, this pseudo-realist ecological parable about an isolated society submerged in water might sound like an indie remake of Kevin Costner’s Waterworld, where it also features a child protagonist learning the harsh realities of the world, but at closer inspection, Beasts of the Southern Wild is so much more. It works magnificently as a cinematic fable – the sort of story told around campfires with parents sharing to their gawping children the extraordinary tale of a miniature heroine who has to fight the leviathan monsters and battle the odds to survive – more than a neo-realist documentary, which this film sometimes veer into. Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature often feels like it’s been lifted out of a National Geographic episode, but Zeitlin sidesteps allegories to post-disaster Hurricane Katrina and locates a coming-of-age tale into the heart of this wonderful, one-of-a-kind film.
Here, crushing reality is seen through the eyes of a doe-eyed yet ferocious six-year old girl Hushpuppy, who had to ‘man up’ in order to survive hurricanes, storms, floods, hunger, illness, an AWOL mother and all other fucking miserable things you can think of. Just when you think you had a difficult childhood. Although it’s set in a very real location, a southern American bayou community in Louisiana eternally facing imminent threats of extinction, infuses this tale with a folklore flavour and fantastical and metaphorical beasts (here represented in the Aurochs, defrosted Ice-Age mammoth boars set out to ravage the modern land). The indomitable two-foot tall heroine is pitted against the natural forces, including mortality, and to protect their home, albeit foolishly – but it’s what you do when home is all what you have.
There are touches of Malick all around, Hushpuppy’s philosophical ruminations about life ‘When you’re small, you gotta fix what you can’ lends some aching melancholy, and Hushpuppy’s journey into self-discovery is reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and the father-child relationship in the little-seen delicate Mexican gem Alamar – but Beasts of the Southern Wild is truly its own hand-crafted creature. It has a pre-title prologue which climaxes into a vibrant town display of fireworks, bursting with an ebullient soundtrack, and a father-daughter interplay that will wither down even the most cynical of human beings. At its pulsating core, we have a frayed father, all bravado and scorching temper on outside, showing perhaps the most unorthodox parenting you’ll ever see – braving a night storm, shooting bullets to the sky to convince terrified Hushpuppy it’s an enemy one can overcome – and at the same time heartbreakingly tender in the way he prepares her for literally the apocalypse.
Unknown non-professional actors Dwight Henry and Quvenzhané Wallis deliver more-than-remarkable, multi-layered performances, but it’s six-year old Wallis who really make this film soar. Plucked out of nowhere and yet conveys more intensity and emotional nuance than half of the Hollywood acting working in the industry today combined, Wallis’ Hushpuppy – for the lack of a better compounded word – a force-of-nature. The film entirely lies on her shoulder, and she carries it with grit, grace and sheer courage. If the film’s finale doesn’t inspire you to face whatever shit life has thrown its way to you – then perhaps it’s time to watch cinema differently this time around. And this is a superb start.
You’ll hardly see a more life-affirming film this year than this barnstorming magical-realist coming-of-age fable. Beasts of the Southern Wild deserves to be seen and treasured – a soulful, soaring, poignant childhood parable, with equal parts joy and melancholy. This is cinema at its most dazzlingly, beautifully alive anchored by one of the greatest child performances of all-time.