I'm getting to this party late, but I saw Beasts of the Southern Wild a few days ago, and it's clearly the best movie I've seen yet this year*. So here are a few things about it, even though it's no longer news to anyone that this is a really special movie.
Beasts was shot in the Southern-most part of Louisiana, in lower Terrebonne Parish, a part of the country where land and water are one and the same indistinct swamp, except that these days it's getting so it's all water. The movie is about people who live in a place called The Bathtub, so outside mainstream society that the levee system that protects coastal Louisiana from the ocean was built north of where they live. There's no health care, school, government, or social services, and the only store is really a bar. On the first day of shooting, the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and the worst oil spill ever began. The vulnerability of the characters in the movie is totally real.
But this is America, and these people love their hometown and can get by just fine on their own. Coastal erosion, government indifference, and every storm that comes along threaten to destroy everything, but they're not going anywhere. They share what they have, help each other, and get along, banding together to party like crazy on holidays and muscle through every other day. It would be a lame cliché to say these people are poor but happy. More like, they're poor but ecstatically joyful and exuberant and more full of life than just about anything I've ever seen. It's impossible to say whether this is a conventionally liberal or conservative ideology--it's an ideology about being free.
The central character is 6 year-old Hushpuppy, a girl who is so fiercely self-assured that she actually makes me wish I had a daughter so I could show her this movie. She's played by the magnetically charismatic Quvenzhané Wallis. Hushpuppy is one gutsy little girl, but watching her worry about her sick father and miss her absent mother is heart-wrenching. She can tear apart a crab with her hands and stun a catfish with her fist, but she's still a child who's pretty much on her own, trying to survive in a dangerous world full of terrifying things.
My favorite scene involves Hushpuppy and her girl posse (see photo above) venturing off-shore to a waterside crab shack/dance hall/brothel. They momentarily enter into a softer, gentler, prettier world where the ladies who work there talk to them, pick them up, and dance with them while Fats Waller's "Until the Real Thing Comes Along" plays in the background. It's beautiful to watch, and such a relief to see adults treating these abandoned kids with some kindness. But the girls leave that magical place and go back home to their waterlogged, dying, broke-ass town, because when self-determination is all that matters, that's what you do.
In addition to the girl who plays Hushpuppy, there's another non-professional actor, Dwight Henry, who plays her father Wink. He is not the greatest actor, because he's really a baker at his New Orleans shop, the Buttermilk Drop Bakery. He told Roger Ebert he's not pursuing an acting career (though he just got a small role in Twelve Years a Slave.) His character can be stubborn, cruel, and exasperating, but even though it was difficult to watch how he treats his daughter, he got me to understand him. If he coddled Hushpuppy, she would never make it. It's not because he told her she's a pretty princess that Hushpuppy can climb up on a table in the town bar, raise her fists, and look as powerful as an ox with an Afro (see wonderful photo.) His performance is rough, but it gets the message across.
The movie opened wide last week and has finally made a little bit at the box office. I think it's going to keep building through word of mouth. It's fantastical, magical, and completely authentic at the same time, and the most original movie I've seen all year.
Here's the trailer.
* Actually, I think it's tied with Goon.