Beasts of the Southern Wild – Behn Zeitlin – 2012
Being an Oscar aficionado, this was one of the films that you kept hearing about all year. From Sundance to its summer release and all through the awards season, people kept bringing up this little indie film from first time director Behn Zeitlin and how it was going to be this year’s Winter’s Bone. The big talk about this film though, was that its 9 year old (Quvenzhané Wallis) star was heading towards an Oscar nod for Best Actress. Now that we know that she not only got the nod, but that Zeitlin picked up nods for Picture, Director, and Screenplay, I couldn’t resist finding a copy to see what all the fuss is about. And while this is not a great film, it is a very good film with one of the best performances to ever come from a child actor.
The story is an unusual one. Set in a rural Louisiana borough called the Bathtub, Hushpuppy (Wallis) and her father live in a pair of trailers (each inhabiting their own interestingly) and along with the rest of the community, await a coming storm. With heavy overtones of global warming, the film gives us how Hushpuppy and the other residents of the Bathtub survive the apocalyptic storm. Herein lies the film’s fbiggest weakness, the straightforward plot seems dreadfully outmatched by the brilliant performance by Wallis. Zeitlin tries to enrich the story with tales of fantastic and terrible beasts being unfrozen in the North Pole, but all we want to see is Hushpuppy.
On a positive note; this film has to be seen purely for Wallis’s performance. On the strength of her shriek this film is carried. Where most performances from child actors have a sense of realism or authenticity, Wallis gives her performance a touch of craft. And whether or not this was just excellent direction from Zeitlin is not a very interesting question. The best of actors give bad performances under a crappy director. Wallis gives passion and intensity to her performance, the likes of which surpass all child performers of recent memory.
The other performances are all good, although none stand out against Wallis. The cinematography should also be singled out for praise; Zeitlin’s use of framing and composition creates an atmosphere that adds gravitas to an already meaty performance from Wallis. Unfortunately, that’s about it. It’s difficult to tell if it’s just the strength of Wallis that overpowers an otherwise excellent film or if the film its self is weak and Wallis brings it out of the trash heap. Either way, the film is worth a watch. Zeitlin is an interesting mind for sure, and although the film has many imperfections it is deserving of much of the praise heaped upon it.