There is no mistaking why young Quvenzhané Wallis is up for an Oscar for best actress at this year's Academy Awards: she shoulders the entire narrative of Beasts of the Southern Wild and does so with a depth and power that captivates with every moment she graces the screen. Though only six years old at the time of filming, Wallis commands the screen, and make no mistake, she is through-and-through the star of this film. Set on "the Bathtub" on the Gulf side of the levee, Beasts is less a film about flooding and the poor as it is a film wrapped in decadent metaphors about love, loss, pain, sacrifice, and responsibility. NOTE: Spoilers to follow.
The young Wallis plays Hushpuppy, a resident of the Bathtub being raised alone by her father Wink (Dwight Henry). Her mother passed away at some point in the past, but Hushpuppy still communicates with her, obviously unable to deal with something so poignant as the loss of her mother. Her father is, to put it fairly, a rough but loving man trying to toughen up his daughter to face the harshness of the world around her. Sadly too many people see this film and can only condemn Wink for his treatment of Hushpuppy, missing the absolute dedication and love that he has for his daughter. Early in the film he vanishes, only to return several days later wearing a hospital gown, having clearly escaped. The film never makes clear whether or not he goes willingly, but given his characterization throughout the film, it is doubtful. Though his treatment of his daughter is nothing to be condoned (slapping her, screaming at her, and the like), Henry manages to infuse his brutality and his rough-around-the-edges demeanor with a strong sense of love, responsibility, and honor.
When a storm threatens the Bathtub, most of the residents flee, but Wink decides to stay behind with Hushpuppy, along with other residents. The flood destroys their homes, but not their spirits- even when forced to evacuate, the remaining residents of the Bathtub band together to break free and return to their homes, devastated or not. All the while, a pack of aurochs- prehistoric beasts about which Hushpuppy learns in school- break free from the Antarctic ice and begin a path of destruction toward her home. While a bit distracting to the overall plot at times- the script could've done with a few less scenes of them- the aurochs are a refreshing touch of magical realism in a world that is all-too-real for everyone, and do offer a break from the hopelessness of life in the Bathtub after the flood.
All the while, Quvenzhané Wallis carries the entire film with her enigmatic performance. At six years old, Hushpuppy is forced more often than not to fend for herself while dealing with complex emotions she's not even old enough to understand. Over time she begins to realize her father is dying, and is forced to come to terms with this fact as well as the loss of her mother, all while dealing with the loss of her home. The majestic aurochs charge through the film, a pure metaphor for the crushing realities of life and the acceptance of life's hardships. Faced with being alone without either of her parents, Hushpuppy's entire world is crashing down around her, and no matter if she is ready or not, this reality is coming slowly but surely to completely overturn her world.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is at once a journey of innocence to maturity and the path from naivety to understanding. Hushpuppy at the start of the film is hardly the character that she is at its end, having accepted the loss of her mother and made peace with the imminent death of her father, she comes into a realization of the complexities of emotion that go along with it. She goes on an imagined journey and finds her mother, giving her the strength to cope with the loss of her father- by the time the aurochs arrive, the devastation and chaos they represent is understood, and Hushpuppy stands poised and prepared for the next journey she must take in life.
A great deal of the credit for all the wonderful emotions realized in this film must go to Quvenzhané Wallis, but just as much should go to writer/director Benh Zeitlin and screenwriter Lucy Alibar, who have infused a simple journey of one indomitable little girl with layers so rich that multiple viewings are nearly required to see between them all. The film's score is utterly magnificent, lending each and every scene an extra level of depth and beauty. While not perfect, Beasts is so imaginative and rich that it comes to life effortlessly on the screen, and top to bottom all involved deserve every accolade for it. Dwight Henry deserved a nomination alongside Wallis, whose performance could (but likely will not) catapult her to Oscar gold. Even if she doesn't win, she gives a vivid and wonderful performance that will never be forgotten by anyone who sees this magnificent film. Four out of Five Stars.
By Nicholas Haskins
Though it hardly does the film justice, check out the trailer and see this film. If you're a fan of my reviews please subscribe to them and share them; your support means everything to me! You can also become a fanboy/girl and follow me on Twitter or book my face.