REVIEW by Craig Thomas

NWR Issue 98

Beasts of the Southern Wild, Film Review

It’s awards season and the nominations for the Academy Awards have been released. The Best Picture category has nine nominations (down from ten last year) and is made up of illustrious films by illustrious directors with star studded casts, most of whom are already Oscar winners. Yet, in the middle of this gallery of A-List celebrities making films that cost tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars, one small film stands alone. With a relatively modest budget of $1.8 million, Beasts of the Southern Wild is certainly the cheapest film nominated. It also one of the best.

The film tells the story of Hushpuppy, a five-year old girl growing up on a small island known as The Bathtub, which is under constant threat of flooding and where the people are happy despite being poor. It quickly becomes apparent that the film alludes to, but is not specifically about the events in New Orleans, which was flooded during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, leaving thousands of people stranded. Told from Hushpuppy’s perspective, it utilises an element of magical realism as a continuing metaphor. This allows the film to tell a familiar story, without using the questionable ‘based on a true story’ shtick adopted by current movies such as The Impossible, about a family in the 2004 Indonesian tsunami.

The performances are excellent, especially from the leads, both of whom make their debut here. Dwight Henry, who plays the father figure, Wink, was running a bakery across the road from the film’s production company when he was discovered. Having experienced the realities of living in flooded New Orleans, he brings a legitimacy to the role. Experience is rarely sufficient to elicit such a performance so he must also be recognised as being a good actor in his own right. The only disappointment was that he missed out on a deserved nomination in either Best or Best Supporting Actor category.

Even so, Henry’s performance is overshadowed by that of Quvenzhané Wallis, who plays Hushpuppy. At nine years old she has become the youngest person ever nominated in the Best Actress category. What is even more remarkable is that she was only six at the time of filming. Her performance is outstanding and she would be a worthy winner. However, one tends to hope she doesn’t win an Academy Award at such a young age, as the film industry does not have the best record of taking care of child actors.

Co-written by first-time director Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar, the script is clearly adapted from a play. Based on Alibar’s original one-act play, each word is deliberately chosen and sentences are crafted perfectly with a precision so often lacking on the big screen. The basic story is pretty straightforward, but everything works to such a great effect that you simply don’t care.

Visually, Beasts of the Southern Wild looks great. Director Zeitlin’s decision to shoot almost exclusively with handheld cameras gives the film a DIY feel, which is perfectly in alignment with the philosophy and the character of The Bathtub. There is a colour and vibrancy that show the heart of the piece, while the rough edges allow you connect with the characters in a way films with the usual blockbuster gloss just can’t manage.

This is a fantastic movie and if it won all four of the awards it has been nominated for, it still wouldn’t be enough. Everyone involved should be extremely proud of what they have accomplished here. Beasts of the Southern Wild shows exactly what you can do when you give an opportunity to the right people.


previous review: Bistro
next review: Camelion


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