Journeyman Pictures’ latest release, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” offers a powerful, gritty and at times, gruesome look at how people on the fringe of society make their way in the world.
Six-year-old Hushpuppy and her father, Wink, live in “the Bathtub,” a bayou south of New Orleans, surrounded by rising water and a coming storm, certainly meant to be Hurricane Katrina. Shacks, a delapidated store and make-shift school are set on stilts to protect the residents from the ever-present water.
Hushpuppy’s gifts lie in her connection to all living things. She is especially attuned to creatures’ heartbeats. The film opens with her listening to the fluttering heart of a baby duck.
She sees the big picture.
“The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right,” she says in a voice over. “If one piece busts, even the smallest piece ... the whole universe will get busted.”
Hushpuppy has her own place on the edge of town, a ramshackle trailer house she once shared with her parents. Her mother, it seems, has gone missing. Her father, a brutal alcoholic, lives in a nearby chicken coop, daily grilling chickens captured, killed, with the head and neck intact, on a makeshift barbecue pit. He calls Hushpuppy to dinner by ringing a bell and yelling, “Feed up time is coming.”
When Wink disappears for a couple of days, Hushpuppy is left to fend for herself, cooking canned cat food in sizzling lard. She has two-sided conversations with her mom to keep the boogeyman at bay. She’s learning lessons that will become invaluable later on.
During her father’s absence, Hushpuppy makes her way to her one-room school, led by a modern-day Mother Nature who has ancient aurochs (giant, four-legged boars with deadly tusks) tattooed to her thigh. According to the teacher, aurochs became extinct during the Ice Age, but they are sure to come back, with global warming, melting glaciers and the ocean slowly reclaiming the bayou.
Clouds gather, foreboding and full of nothing but bad news for residents of the Bathtub.
Wink wanders back to the property, wearing a hospital gown, another hint of what’s to come.
But all is not gloom and grit in the Bathtub. The abundance of a seafood harvest is cause for celebration. In fact, the Bathtub finds a lot of reasons to celebrate.
“The Bathtub has more holidays than the whole rest of the world,” Hushpuppy explains over scenes of sparklers, Zydeco music and general merriment.
At the general store/bar/hangout, residents sit down to a feast of boiled crabs, fish and shrimp.
Wink challenges his daughter to break a crab open with her bare hands, moving Hushpuppy to stand on the table, show off her “guns” (muscles) and let out a wild, high-pitched scream.
The ability to produce that scream and to burp on command were critical to young Quvenzhané Wallis landing the role.
"She is a miraculous human being," director Benh Zeitlin told USA Today in a June interview.
According to the article, “Zeitlin saw this spunk three years ago, when Wallis (whose first name is pronounced Qui-ven-ZHEN-ay) and her mom walked into the library where the director was holding open auditions. He looked at 4,000 potential Hushpuppies, but no one challenged him — quite literally — like this little girl.
‘She took me on,’ Zeitlin recalls. ‘I was telling her to throw this stuffed animal at the other actor as part of the scene, and she refused. She took a moral stance. She said, 'It's not right to throw something at someone you don't know.' It wasn't just that she was defiant as she was defiant on the grounds of being a sweet person, which is really who Hushpuppy is.”
Zeitlin found Dwight Henry, who plays Hushpuppy’s father, while filming in and around Montegut, La. (70 miles southwest of New Orleans). Henry owned a bakery across the street from the casting agency the film crew was using.
Henry picked up one of the agency’s brochures and decided to read for the part. He was cast, but then the agency nearly lost him.
He was moving to a new building in New Orleans to open up the Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Cafe, according to Wikipedia. Zeitlin waited until the move was complete so he could use Henry. His patience was rewarded. Henry brought real-life experience to the screen.
“I was in Hurricane Katrina in neck-high water,” Henry remembered. “I have an inside understanding for what this movie is about. I brought a passion to the part that an outside actor who had never seen a storm or been in a flood or faced losing everything could have.”
Wallis and Henry have incredible onscreen chemistry.
Wallis brings bold dignity to Hushpuppy and Henry makes the desperate, drunk Wink likeable, in spite of his outward cruelty towards his daughter. You see, Wink knows he’s dying and he’s trying to make sure Hushpuppy is tough enough to survive life without a mama or a daddy.
Although she’s only a wisp of a girl, Hushpuppy is up for the challenge. The broad stance she takes on her skinny little legs, the squareness of her shoulders and the flint in her eyes assures us she will be OK. She’s one brave soul, and brave souls don’t back down.
“Everybody loses the thing that made them,” she says. “The brave men stay and watch it happen. They don't run.”
When the storm rages, when the Bathtub is nothing but wrack and ruin, when the officials force everyone to a shelter in town, and, finally, when the aurochs come and force Hushpuppy to face two of her biggest fears, she’s ready. She gives us a couple of crack-your-heart-wide-open moments as she comes eye to eye with the beasts and then, later, when she lets go of what she loves most.
The film attracted attention long before its June release. It was designated a 2012 pick by the film reviewers of The New York Times. The film won the 2012 Caméra d’Or award at Canne, the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and the Los Angeles Film Festival’s Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature. It was also selected for the cover of the May/June cover of Film Comment magazine.
It’s been a long time since a movie moved me as much as “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Because of its brutal story and because it will most likely not play theaters in East Texas, most of our world will miss the opportunity to see this small, emotionally powerful film. It’s regretful that audiences in our area will miss the performances of two rookie actors who bring a fierce little girl and her dying father to glorious, bursting-at-the-seams life.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is currently showing at the Angelika at Mockingbird Station in Dallas and Angelika Film Centre in Plano. For show times, visit http://angelikafilmcenter.com/
Click here to watch the official trailer.
Here's a more detailed trailer, with comments by the director, Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry.
And here is an interview with the director, Wallis and Henry.
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