When I saw Tarsem Singh’s The Fall in 2008, I was struck by the screen presence of Catinca Untaru, who was only six years old during filming and yet was able to give one of the year’s most engaging and convincing performances as a curious little girl wandering the halls of a hospital in 1920s Los Angeles. It’s now four years later, and at long last, another young actress makes an awe-inspiring debut. Her name is Quvenzhané Wallis. She’s the star of Beasts of the Southern Wild, unquestionably one of the year’s best films. Here is a case where the performance of a minor surpasses the condescending expectations of adults. Never once does it seem as if she’s merely delivering her lines; she disappears into her role so thoroughly that one wonders if it possessed her instead of the other way around.
Wallis plays six-year-old Hushpuppy, who lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), on a destitute island off the coast of Louisiana called The Bathtub. They, along with a ragtag band of colorful locals, live an isolated existence on the other side of a levee. Building are constructed entirely from what they all can scrounge up; a motorboat is hobbled together from the bed of a pickup truck and other assorted spare parts, while scrap-metal shacks are precariously perched on stilts jutting through the wet marshlands. They live by their own set of rules and, for reasons known only to them, have a deep distrust of the outside world. The adults provide for their children not with a formal education or even basic physical and emotional affection but rather with hard and fast lessons in survival.
Hushpuppy, who doubles as the film’s narrator, no longer has a mother. Her father tells her that she went off to sea; whenever Hushpuppy looks off onto the watery horizon, she lets out a primal scream as an attempt at communication. By the standards of most prosperous societies, Wink would be considered abusive and an alcoholic. By the standards of his own community, he’s a loving father who wants his daughter to grow up strong. He is, however, being secretive about something, which has lately made him harsher than usual. What is it he doesn’t want her to know? The audience is made aware of it on a visual level, but logically, emotionally, we’re as in the dark as Hushpuppy is. This is good. If the story is being told from Hushpuppy’s perspective, it’s best we’re made to experience it the same way.
A storm is on the way. The locals, lively yet deeply fatalistic, know that The Bathtub is likely to be flooded. Many decide to leave, but a select few stay. They’re the ones Wink has respect for. “Daddy says brave men don’t run from their place,” Hushpuppy says during one of her voiceover monologues. After the rain has fallen, after the wind has stopped blowing, after the lightning and thunder has ceased and the clouds have parted, The Bathtub has indeed flooded. Wink, along with a few conniving cohorts, devise a way to save their island. One of them warns them not to go through with it, as it will bring rescuers, who will in turn force them into shelters. Wink isn’t concerned with anyone on the other side of the levee. There’s his world, and then there’s the world everyone else is a part of.
As events occur and subside, we’re guided along by not only by Hushpuppy’s determination, but also by her imagination. She documents her experiences on the inside of a cardboard box in the form of childish doodles: “They gonna know that once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub.” When the local teacher reveals a tattoo of two prehistoric beasts on her thigh and explains, in her own defeatist way, about the melting of the polar ice caps, Hushpuppy envisions them breaking free from the ice and stampeding towards The Bathtub like apocalyptic harbingers. Looking like a herd of gigantic boars, they’re intermittently spliced into various scenes, perhaps as a visual manifestation of all that Hushpuppy fears. There will inevitably come the moment when she will have to confront them as only she can.
Hushpuppy is resilient and magnetic, and yet she’s not an idealized hero archetype. She’s a force all her own – brave, resolute, curious, and perpetually on a path of discovery. To watch Wallis bring this character to life is to witness the start of something beautiful. It will be a tragedy if she never makes another movie (Catinca Untaru seemed destined for greatness, and yet I haven’t seen her in anything since The Fall). But if that’s the way it has to be, at least audiences will always have this one to look back on fondly. It has been quite some time since a movie has had me this captivated, this intrigued, this absorbed by a world so utterly foreign to me and yet, in a way, so understandable. Loosely adapted from Lucy Alibar’s stage play Juicy and Delicious, Beasts of the Southern Wild is an amazing experience, a testament not only to the craft of filmmaking but also to the indomitable spirit of life.
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