Benh Zeitlin’s Deep South exploration of classism and racism within a microscopic community called The Bathtub based in the Louisiana Bayou shows the heartbreaking journey a little girl, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) makes to be reunited with her mum after her father falls ill who she hasn’t seen in years. The film is intricate in all of its elements and has become one of the most captivating films of the past decade for its brilliant cinematography, emotionally charged writing and a fantastic performance by Wallis. In fact, Wallis became the youngest nominee at age 9 for the Best Leading Actress Oscar at the 2013 ceremony for her performance. This may have been the big draw for the film as audiences were keen to see what the fuss was about but it is a film that has a big heart and delves into the trials and tribulations of family. It walked away empty-handed from the Oscars that year but so did other worthy films (aka. The Master) so it’s not the end of the world. I don’t think it has received the mass audience it deserves but it is a very small film and is loved by critics and film fans alike so it may grow into a modern classic soon enough.
Zeitlin’s direction is stunning and absolutely incredible for a first feature. His fixation on the community itself and reluctance to show the outside world was a great choice as the consequences and invasion of the outside world feels more impactful than if we saw The Bathtub in a larger context. We get to know similar faces and their way of life in the first half of the act and importantly, their strategies to escape from those who want to split them up. Hushpuppy isn’t raised in a conventional manner. Her education and lifestyle sees her living in her own house, cooking and raising animals at the age of 5. She is self-reliant and mature in many ways but what Zeitlin wants us to remember is that she is still a child. She sets fire to her house when angry at her father because she doesn’t think of the consequences. She screams and throws tantrums but she is also fearless and has a simplistic look on the world that makes it easy to identify the good and the bad. To Hushpuppy, there is no middle ground. Hushpuppy’s development in the script, written by Lucy Alibar and Zeitlin, is depicted beautifully as she begins to understand and comprehend the reality of the situation when she is separated from her dad and the truth about her mum.
Wallis’ performance is among the best of the decade for me. Only five years old when filming this, she truly encapsulates everything about Hushpuppy and pulls it off with ease. Unafraid to be big and proud but also willing to show vulnerability, the emotional spectrum that Hushpuppy goes through means that the role itself is deeply complex, especially for a child. This is because Hushpuppy isn’t a normal child. Wallis seems to understand this and commands attention when onscreen, which she is for the majority of the film. Thematically, Hushpuppy encounters loss, death and grief which are hugely dense topics for a child so young to even comprehend but Wallis is so engaged in her performance that she isn’t afraid of tackling this maturity head on.
The score composed by Dan Romer and director Zeitlin has become somewhat of a modern classic unbeknown to the mass audiences. The main theme has been used in various adverts and trailers alike and it feels like a piece that truly resonates the hope and adventure in the film. The soundtrack can only be described as strong and deep in heritage with Deep South banjos mixed with Cajun vibes creating a sound that feels exclusive to the community. The tracks are all fairly short as the film is made up of lots of smaller scenes rather than fewer elongated ones and this helps with the shift in tone and character. The use of brass in the score is phenomenal and makes the film feel grounded and rooted with nature. We feel Hushpuppy’s perseverance and strength.
What makes this one of my favourite films of the decade is the humility that it brings. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a film that has power in its characters and detail in writing that serves to develop characters, particularly Hushpuppy. It is such a striking film that isn’t afraid to push the realms of realism while simultaneously remaining grounded in very real topics of class and race politics. Because we view the film from Hushpuppy’s point of view predominantly, we too are seeing these issues in a very different manner. As her dad arrives home with a hospital wristband, it is only a minor detail on his outfit as Hushpuppy questions his “dress” (his hospital gown). It’s a film that discusses recurring issues but in a unique way and for that, I think it deserves to be remembered.
What do you think of Beasts of the Southern Wild? Let me know in the comments below!