At the end of Disney’s documentary Chimpanzee, I was left wanting an “Oscar,” the little chimp the film focuses on, to take home and cuddle. The same could be said for when Beasts of the Southern Wild ended; I wanted a Hushpuppy.
By far, the best part of Beasts of the Southern Wild is Quvenzhané Wallis, the (at the time) 6-year-old Hushpuppy who lives in the Bathtub, an island community off the coast of Louisiana, with her father and a host of friends. When a Katrina-inspired storm rips through (explained by her teacher as the ice caps melting), the Bathtub floods, and the islanders have adventures of surviving in their waterlogged home. Add to the story that Hushpuppy’s father is dying from a blood disease, and her mother is far away. Meanwhile, the “beasts of the Southern Wild,” newly defrosted, are heading toward her home.
Despite the title, the Beasts, which look like giant warthogs as they stampede across melting tundra, are not the main antagonists. Instead, the “beasts” that threaten the characters are the storm, illness and destruction. It’s impossible to lose hope, however, when little Hushpuppy gets talking. “They think we’re all gonna drown down here. But we ain’t going nowhere,” she says.
In a film labeled by its makers as an “American fantasy inspired by Katrina,” the true magic lies in how this 6-year-old girl narrates the story with adult revelations written as a small child would say them. “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right,” she muses. “If one piece busts, even the smallest piece… the whole universe will get busted.” The cinematography of flooded Louisiana islands shows the pain of losing home to a natural disaster in ways that words wouldn’t be able to describe, and the writers understand this. Instead, they use their talent to write a sparse script that drives the story and endears the characters rather than overcomplicate what’s clearly on the screen — devastation.
But despite its origins being a very tragic event in natural history, Beasts of the Southern Wild succeeds in possibly being one of the most hope-filled films of 2012. Hushpuppy greets the dawn in the end with the same wise innocence as she did in the beginning, despite the tragedies that befall her throughout the movie. As the Gulf’s waters begin to lap up onto the path and the sun rises in the cloudy sky behind her, a new day both literally and figuratively dawns with sunny Hushpuppy leading the charge and a Mumford and Sons-style score playing behind her.
Beasts’ only flaw is its smallness. When faced with the pressure of competing against epics such as Lincoln and Les Miserables at the Oscars, I hate to say that I don’t think it has a prayer. That’s not to say it’s not a fantastic picture; its smallness is its charm, and tiny films such as this one must continue to be made by people like director Benh Zeitlin, whose only other credits are obscure shorts.
The Verdict: Beasts of the Southern Wild is a must-see for fans of small cinema and Americans who have forgotten how natural disasters can throw lives and communities into chaos (I’m looking at you, Congress). Zeitlin’s film should be classified on its own at the Oscars, and my annual “random for the heck of it” award would go to Wallis for “Most Adorable Performance.” See it, if only to fall madly in love with Hushpuppy and the hope she instills in the Bathtub and in her viewers.