Make no mistake, Beasts of the Southern Wild is unlike any film you’ve ever seen before. A magical realist fable that is an instant classic thanks to the magnetic performances of the two leads, the beautiful cinematography and the terrific script.
Set in the Bathtub, a shanty town that refuses to succumb to the forces of nature, it is a brilliantly realised community defiantly clinging onto the last vestiges of land before the sea reclaims it; where the inhabitants have very little but group together in the most trying of circumstances. Clearly inspired by post-Katrina New Orleans, the setting feels almost post-apocalyptic adding to the surrealist quality of the experience.
Beasts revolves around the troubled relationship of a father, Wink (Dwight Henry) and daughter, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and the film really hangs on the performances of these two newcomers. Thankfully they both deliver astonishing debuts. Wallis, who had never acted before in her life, brings an inquisitiveness and tenacity to the role. Hushpuppy is a headstrong, fiery character who can stare down any man or beast and Wallis’ eyes sparkle with defiance throughout, daring people to try and tell her what to do. Hushpuppy’s dialogue is believably childlike; in one scene she tells Wink that when he dies she will go to his grave and “eat birthday cake all by [her]self”.
Henry, who owned a bakery and lived through Katrina before getting the part of Wink, delivers a heartbreaking performance as Hushpuppy’s alcoholic and increasing ill father. He swings between rage and love towards his young daughter, with their dysfunctional relationship feeling entirely genuine. This is thanks in large part to Beasts not resorting to maudlin displays of emotion. For the most part the love between them is understated and is all the more powerful as a result.
The score is terrific, reflecting Hushpuppy’s mood and the film’s feeling of hope, as is the creature design, bringing the mythical Aurochs to life without them ever seeming out of place in this world.
Beasts is a truly astonishing work, containing many powerful scenes that will stay with you long after you leave the cinema, especially the final shot. It manages to tackle many complex themes such as climate change, abandonment and even the gap between rich and poor. But it deals with all these themes without overstressing any of them and becoming too preachy.
For all this, at its heart this is a film about a legacy. Early on in the film Hushpuppy scribbles a drawing of herself in the style of a cave drawing, so that people will remember her. Wink is trying to prepare Hushpuppy for a world without him and the residents of Bathtub are trying desperately to keep their community alive when the forces of nature and man don’t want them there. These ideas are beautifully summed up by Hushpuppy in what deserves to become an iconic line in movie history:
“In a million years, when kids go to school, they’re gonna know: once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub”.
A must watch.