In a summer full of underwhelming mainstream releases, it is reassuring to know that there are still filmmakers capable of brilliance. It’s even more encouraging to learn that for most of those involved in the process, this was their first feature film, except that it’s going to be very hard for them to top it with anything they may do in the future.
Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived in the Bathtub with her daddy. Hushpuppy (played by Quvenzhané Wallis) is a six-year-old girl, the Bathtub is a shanty town on the Louisiana coast just outside the New Orleans levee, and her daddy is Wink (Dwight Henry) who has to take care of her alone after the death of his wife. They, like the other residents of the Bathtub, are very poor, but they do a lot of celebrating with food and friendships. That celebration usually includes a lot of drinking, and Wink’s frequent indulgence often makes him less attentive than he should be, which in turn has made Hushpuppy more independent and self-sufficient than other girls her age. And that’s probably a good thing, because her father is also sick.
Because it’s outside the levee, the people in the Bathtub are usually left alone, but they’re also in constant danger of floods. Minor flooding isn’t uncommon, but a big one can put everyone at risk. When a big storm approaches, some residents choose to evacuate, but the more stubborn of them (like Wink) intend to ride it out no matter what.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is unquestionably the best film I’ve seen all year. It has so many emotional extremes, and the mood can change so quickly that you’re not always sure what to feel. You immediately forge a strong connection to Hushpuppy, which leads to what I honestly believe are a few of the most terrifying scenes ever recorded, and she also delivers one of the saddest lines ever uttered. Wallis should be a shoo-in for a best actress nomination with one of the strongest performances in the last several years.
Although there’s a lot of fear and sadness, the film is still pure joy to watch. There are enough scenes of pure elation and utter cuteness to lighten the mood, but even at its darkest the movie is so perfectly executed that it becomes completely engrossing. You’ll almost certainly walk out of the theater on a high, but you’ll probably also be completely spent so it’s not a good choice to plan to see it immediately before any other movies.
Because I took so long to write the review, I had an opportunity to see it again, a week after my first viewing. I think that I needed the full week’s recovery after seeing it the first time, but it was just as powerful the second time around. The scenes I’d found terrifying the first time through didn’t have the same effect because I knew what was going to happen, but if possible I think that every other emotion came through even more strongly. The rewatch firmly cemented my initial impression that Beasts of the Southern Wild is the best film of the year.