Just when it seemed there would be no respite from the glut of bad movies pouring into the multiplexes—and even the indie houses—we may all rejoice. Beasts of the Southern Wild is not only the best movie of the year to date, it may be the best movie of the year, period.
That may sound like hyperbole, but it’s a completely sincere sentiment. There’s nothing out there quite like it. This movie is so sure of itself, its characters and its sense of time and place, it’s almost miraculous. (Yes, the Transformers series is sure of itself, but those movies aren’t miracles. They’re well made pieces of shit.)
The narrative structure in Beasts is loose but not sloppy. Director Benh Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar tell a story while immersing the audience in the lives of its inhabitants; it’s going to take its time getting where it wants to go.
Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), the 6-year-old protagonist, and her father Wink (Dwight Henry), live in extreme poverty in a forgotten stretch of Louisiana bayou called the Bathtub. Despite the insular setting, Hushpuppy learns about global warming, melting polar ice caps and Aurochs, long extinct wild oxen unleashed by climate change that may be coming to reclaim the planet.
The Bathtub’s idyll is submerged when an unnamed hurricane—presumably Katrina or its allegorical twin—floods the Bathtub. Hushpuppy and her father wait out the storm. The scene, which culminates with Wink showing Hushpuppy he’s not afraid of the hurricane by jumping into the weather, screaming, “I’m coming to get you, storm!” and firing his shotgun at it, is one of many scenes that’s simultaneously unbelievable and completely believable. Who would fire a shotgun at a hurricane? Once we get to know Wink a little better, it’s clear that’s his only choice.
With their meager homes destroyed and food becoming scarce, Wink and several others make a plan to lower the water levels in the Bathtub. It involves an improvised explosive device hidden inside an alligator.
That isn’t the half of this story. Later on we learn that Wink has a heart condition; Hushpuppy and the other young girls around her (there don’t seem to be any boys) are incredibly resourceful; and Hushpuppy and Wink won’t give up on the Bathtub. All these random scene descriptions don’t do justice to the movie. This film has to be experienced firsthand.
There’s been some grumbling out there that the unconventional narrative structure will irk audiences, and that the filmmakers condescend to their characters by showing their complete resilience despite living in such decrepit settings.
Don’t listen to that bologna. Even after we purchase a movie ticket, we wait on the film’s first scene to decide whether we’re buying into its ethos. Beasts of the Southern Wild is so great it makes the decision for us. Wallis (a first-time actor) and Henry (a baker) are brilliant.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Directed by Benh Zeitlin
With Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry