This is a film I went into completely blind. Having heard some of the praise and critical acclaim I decided to go in with a virginal perspective, as clear of expectation as possible. I recommend this approach to those rare dark horse Indie films that come out of nowhere, riding a tide of glowing reviews and positive word of mouth. As much as I enjoy an interesting or compelling trailer, sometimes it’s nice to just dive right in and allow a film to sweep you along with no real certainty of where you’ll end up. That being said, here is one perspective, free of plot points or spoilers, cobbled together from the emotions and impressions that are awash through my mind, that will continue to echo around for some time to come, I think. I hope.
Once in a while, maybe a few times in my life that I can recall, you’ll see a film that doesn’t feel like a film at all. Instead, it feels like a fevered dream that’s come alive on screen, populated by people rather than characters, that hums along with less of a narrative and more of a thrumming heartbeat. It beats out its own unique rhythm, confidently spilling out details of a personal and distinctly different Universe that is too strange to be anything but real and too beautiful to look away from. It’s this kind of film that is, for lack of a sufficient descriptor, kind of magical if only for the fact that it shows us what the world looks like through someone else’s eyes with vivid enthusiasm. Beasts of the Southern Wild is like living in someone else’s imagination for a little while, someone who lives outside the civilized world, beyond the levies that hold the wilderness at bay. It’s the imagination of someone who can peer into our fishbowls and scratch their heads in bewilderment but have absolutely no interest in doing so.
This little community of people we get to follow seem psychotic at the outset, like a nightmare to anyone who has grown up accustomed to running water, electricity, hygiene but as they become more familiar there is a better word to describe the population of The Bathtub: alive. Alive in a way that is different to anyone capable of using the Internet but entirely alive and full of passion for every thing that the word means. This is the fascinating ideal of human beings who still live off the land they live on and eat with their hands and have no interest in a retirement plan or health insurance or when the next season of American Idol will start.
Quvenzhané Wallis was six years old when this was filmed and is the youngest person to be nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award. I’ll be completely direct about this, I don’t understand her. I really don’t. And I don’t mean I couldn’t understand her words or her performance, I’m saying it’s beyond me how this young woman occupies the screen with so much integrity and depth. Not only does she carry the film during its exposition and narration with incredible presence, no, what floored me were the truly dramatic moments, it’s the most challenging ones where she owns this story. I love a film with a great emotional climax or a perfectly delivered piece of dialogue, a moment that burns into your mind as the signature feeling that the film evokes but the most impressive thing a performer can do is create that feeling without a word. She does this with uncanny skill and describes the tone of the entire film with her eyes alone, it’s remarkable. I can recall the moment in my mind where the arc reaches its conclusion because of her angelic poise, her defiant gaze, like the melody of a favorite song from that one time in your past that immediately recalls the sensation of being there.
I want this little girl to disappear and live a good life in obscurity. I want her fame to be appreciated and then forgotten. I want Hollywood to keep their poisoned hands off of her and any pressure of repeating this performance to evaporate. I want Hushpuppy to grow up with the strength and wisdom she so ably displays in this film far away from the warped values impressed on so many child actors. And I typically loathe child actors with rare exception.
So here it is, Beasts of the Southern Wild is bottled lightning. It’s about courage, real courage in the presence of real fear. Because that’s what heroism is, not the denial of the things that frighten us but the acceptance and maturity to hold fast while still standing face to face with the end of the world.
I love it when a film or a story feels like it is speaking directly to me, sending me a personal message that only I know about. It’s what keeps me coming back, keeps me writing and thinking and talking about the medium. This is the kind of story that I want other people to watch so I can ask, what did you see? What did it tell you? What did you think?
The final message delivered by this story is lovely and it’s all yours to consider, it’s not my place or within my skill to invoke. All I can say is how much I enjoyed being in that place, at the ragged edge of everything, and how badly I want to go back there where I know I am a small part of a much bigger Universe.