Director: Benh Zeitlin
Writer: Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin
Cast: Quvenzhane Wallis, Dwight Henry
“In a million years when kids go to school, they gonna know: Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub.”By a considerable margin, Beasts of the Southern Wild is the least conventional of the Oscar nominated Best Picture films. Traditionally, November to February is a time of year where we see films that feature very well worn tropes and subject matter trotted out from the same old studios celebrating the same old directors to win the same old awards. Eight of the nine Best Picture nominations can be considered safe and by the book.
Then there is Beasts of the Southern Wild. A 90 minute film, shot on 16mm film, on location with local residents on a budget of $12 million dollars from a first time director Benh Zeitlin, produced by a studio I’ve never heard of. The film is a breath of fresh air and a wonderful fairytale for adults.
It tells the story of a girl named Hushpuppy who lives with her dad Wink in a bayou community called The Bathtub which is cut off from the rest of society as we know it. The Bathtub is a filled with alcoholics, reprobates, musicians and fishermen who exist with one another in a commune where buckets of shrimp pass as currency and homes are cobbled together from pieces of trash. Hushpuppy lives in a trailer that is so stacked with garbage that you cannot see the floor. When she goes fishing with Wink, they use a ute with floatation strapped to the sides as a makeshift boat. Not one for subtleties, Wink catches catfish by grabbing them out of the water and punching them.
Although the conditions in the Bathtub are delapitated to say the least, from the perspective of Hushpuppy, it is home and she is happy.
Hushpuppy is a precocious little girl who is preoccupied by three things in life – her late mother, her father’s poor health and Aurochs, giant prehistoric creatures that used to roam the Earth. In her mind’s eye she can see and hear the Aurochs roaming the Earth. And for fleeting moments, she has tantalizing glimpses of her mother calling out to her.
Life gets turned upside down in The Bathtub when it gets flooded in a storm that is not unlike Hurrican Katrina. Wink is reluctant to evacuate and leave behind life at The Bathtub but the arrival of government health workers and his ailing heart condition suggest otherwise.
The best way I can describe Beasts of the Southern Wild is that it feels like watching a live action Studio Ghibli film. From the eyes of a young protagonist, the world seems magical, filled with hidden creatures and boundless possibilities. Hushpuppy picking up animals and shells and holding them up to her ear to listen to them like a telephone is very reminiscent of Miyazaki and his style. The detail and minutae to Hushpuppy’s worldview consistently brought a smile to my face. In the world of a six year old, it makes perfect sense to hide from a fire by sitting under a cardboard box.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a terrific, unconventional coming of age story where we have a pretty good understanding of what will unfold but the journey to the finish is made engaging thanks to some stand out performances from Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy and Dwight Henry as Wink. The film has moments of humour and levity but it is also tempered with some meloncholy and sadness by the end. At its heart, this is a film about a daughter’s love for her father and it is played out beautifully.
I can’t necessarily say that Beasts of the Southern Wild is my favourite film this awards season but it is definitely one of the most creative films I’ve seen in a long time. And for that, I hope it gets duly recognized and remembered.