Child stars rarely excel past puberty. Case in point; Macauley Culkin. The Home Alone kid? Wasn’t he funny when he put the after shave on? Or when he set potentially lethal traps for those burglars? Or Haley Joel Osment. Remember him? That young’n from The Sixth Sense with the perma-frown? Or Jake Lloyd? The lad from that Star Wars film? Have you seen him in much recently? No? I’m not surprised.
See, it’s easy to market a film on the strength of its cast; the basis of which can be its experience, or its versatility, but especially if said cast is noticeably young. All too often, for the actor, this can backfire massively. Yes, people will see the movie in their droves. Yes, it will make some money. However, once the hype has died down, and the dust has settled, the actor is left to continue their career, being forever known as That One From That Film, when they weren’t even that good in the first place.
In the case of Beasts of the Southern Wild, the hype is entirely justified. Quvenzhané Wallis provides, quite simply, a stunning performance. It’s powerful, and moving, and powerfully moving, and all the other superlatives it would be prudent to apply. I want to stress that I do not speak hyperbolically. Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Wallis’ performance, are sublime.
Wallis plays Hushpuppy, a six year old girl who lives with her hard-drinking father Wink in a fictional bayou territory called ‘the Bathtub’. Hushpuppy’s mother is nowhere to be seen, however, and the film charts the events directly following Hurricane Katrina (which Hushpuppy believes she caused when she punched her dad in the heart). The event rips Wink and Hushpuppy from the comfort of the squalor in which they happily live, and this charming film explores how they cope with the unique situation in which they find themselves.
So, that’s what the film is about. For a film must be about something nowadays, mustn’t it? It’s about family, and love, and togetherness. But it’s also about many other things, some of which are thrust upon you via Apocalypse Now-style down-river visuals and cutaway shots, and some of them are more subtle, relying on the viewer to join the dots. It’s also about community, and climate change, and the ‘us and them’ of class culture.
Visually, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a mean, rough experience, and one that offers little respite from Hushpuppy’s unprivileged existence. The only breath the audience gets, the only snatch of ‘real life’, is a five minute portion in a rescue shelter, which our heroes are loathe to stay in. However, this brief glimpse into life outside ‘the Bathtub’ is necessary for us to understand why Wink and Hushpuppy feel such a connection with the place, and wish to stay there. Hushpuppy herself says a number of times during the film; “The entire universe depends on everything fitting together, just right.”
Beasts of the Southern Wild is an unflinching portrayal of life on ‘the other side’. It is a dangerous and honest cautionary tale. It is a life-affirming fairy story. It is all these things and more. Highly recommended.