I dare you to find a film released in 2012 that offers more originality, heart and sheer bewilderment than Beasts of the Southern Wild.

With Beasts, first time director Benh Zeitlin manages to do what most veteran filmmakers cannot – create a uniquely uplifting story with a realized atmosphere and grand ambition. Honestly, Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of the most staggeringly original products to come out of Hollywood in recent memory (even though it’s an adaptation of a stage play).

The film follows Hushpuppy (newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis), a young child living with her hard-drinking father Wink (Dwight Henry, another fresh face) in the Bathtub – a community on the outskirts of Louisiana blocked off from the rest of the United States by a gigantic levy. The citizens of the Bathtub take their community pride to heart, throwing large celebrations with no other reason than to celebrate their existence. To the people of the Bathtub, their pride fuels their way of life – Wink and Hushpuppy being no exception. But when a terrible oncoming storm threatens their home, many residents flee. Wink and Hushpuppy stay alongside a handful of others, believing in the power of their pride.

Besides the impending weather, Hushpuppy faces other issues. Wink is slowly dying. Although she’s only a child, Hushpuppy must quickly rise to the occasion, becoming the film’s unsung hero in the midst of her strife. She longs for her long-lost mother but still manages to perk up the enthusiasm to leave behind signs for “scientists in the future” of her and her father’s predicament.  As the storm closes in, her father’s condition worsens, and ancient beasts freed by melting ice caps make their way to land, Hushpuppy must garner the courage to brave the elements and persevere.

Hushpuppy is the binding piece of Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Zeitlin found a remarkable presence with Quvenzhané Wallis. Wallis, only 6 years old mind you, gives a performance that would make most established actresses jealous. She makes Hushpuppy such a graceful-yet-powerful character. Dwight Henry’s impeccably great turn as Wink also marks an impressive debut. Both Wallis and Henry will likely hear their names read on a January 2013 morning – and for good reason. Their performances are pure, gripping and exuberant.

The rest of the unknown cast also brings their all, giving the inhabitants of the Bathtub their own personalities. Speaking of the Bathtub, talk about the set piece being its own character. The Bathtub itself is a magnificently designed universe full of imagination at every turn. I’m excited to return to this film just to soak in the brilliant atmosphere – a credit to the production designers and Zeitlin’s vision.

Ben Richardson’s crisp cinematography is Oscar worthy, as is Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar’s script. The dialogue in this film feels so natural, and Hushpuppy’s theme-setting narration never feels out of place. The film forgoes pandering explanation in favor of imaginative ambiguity – half the fun comes from wondering how the world got to this state.

Above all else, Beasts of the Southern Wild tells a great story with characters you instantly care about – something I’m ashamed to say we don’t get enough of from modern movies.

During one of the film’s opening scenes, the Bathtub is throwing a large celebration. As Zeitlin and Dan Romer’s booming, joyous score (the best of 2012 as far as I’m concerned) play over the proceedings, we see Hushpuppy running through the grass holding two sparklers. It’s the scene that’s prominently displayed on the poster – and rightfully so. I can’t express the feeling you get when the music starts to swell and the celebration begins to reach its crescendo – it’s just so easy to get swept away in the commotion. Beasts of the Southern Wild takes the tone of its opening jubilation and stretches it out for the entire duration  – creating an incomparable cinematic experience that captures the imagination in the best way possible.

It’s one of the year’s best films, and I can’t recommend it enough.

The film will be showing at the Belcourt starting today, and is rated PG-13 for language, child imperilment, brief sensuality, some disturbing images and thematic material.

A Q-and-A session featuring Dwight Henry (Wink) and co-producer Matt Parker will take place after the 7:45 p.m. screening on Saturday, July 28.

Share This