After an unreasonably long time, Beasts of the Southern Wild was finally released in a theatre near enough for me to go see it. The lack of access to sub-blockbuster movies outside of major cities is frustrating to say the least, and I was beginning to feel anxious that, given the high praise the movie has received, I would be disappointed. I shouldn’t have worried. Beasts is everything I had hoped it would be.
Benh Zeitlin’s first full length movie, Beasts tells the story of a young girl whose father, knowing he is sick and could die at any time, is trying to give her the tools to live and thrive. He is harsh, sometimes cold, and always desperate to steel her for a harsh world descending into chaos. As the father Dwight Henry, a first time actor, brings aching humanity to a character you could easily hate. His methods seem too harsh, and his refusal to seek or allow much help from others doesn’t endear you to him. But the fragile humanity, and desperate love for his daughter, pulses off him in waves. You may think he’s wrong, but you can’t deny he truly believes he’s doing what’s best.
And the daughter, played by newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis, is stunning. Often looking wild and untamed, she carries the entirety of the movie, no mean feat for a 6 year old girl. So much has already been written about her performance, and all of that praise is deserved. Several times there are scenes where it’s clear they didn’t edit around her, where you watch her emotions boil up inside her and break over her expressive face with an authenticity actors ten times her age can’t achieve. Watching her isn’t like watching a curiosity piece, it’s witnessing the debut of a new talent destined for a long, impressive career.
Zeitlin himself is also a filmmaker you should watch for. I had the opportunity to see his first short film, Glory at Sea, a few months back. Between that movie and this, he displays a rare skill in telling stories, combining documentary realism with expressionist tones and elements of fantasy. His films are like watching Hayao Miyazaki’s animated works, made real and brought into our world. I couldn’t say whether Beasts of the Southern Wild will pick up many awards at the end of the year, but it will definitely make a number of Best of lists, including mine.