Beasts of the Southern Wild offers its audience many ways to approach it. I am still not sure how I'd like to do so. In many ways the film baffled me. I had little knowledge of what the story concerned going in besides what I'd heard about its beautiful look and a few comparisons to The Tree of Life. Having absolutely adored Terrence Malick's masterpiece of speculation on the universe and what it all means, where we fit into it, and those moments in life that define us I was, needless to say, anxious for what this critical darling might offer. It wasn't exactly what I expected. The film had moments where I was completely wrapped up in the tale of young Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) and the dynamics of her relationship with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) both who have been praised for their performances considering neither of them were professional actors before this. I, in moments, understood what writer/director Benh Zeitlin was attempting to capture but then there were the long stretches of the movie where I was, to be forward, bored. The film has a lovely tone, a revealing look at some seriously impoverished conditions by storms and hurricanes that have ravished this small bayou community referred to as "the bathtub". It embraces the view of the world through its young protagonist and though the visuals weren't nearly as accomplished as I'd expected it seemed the filmmakers certainly did the best with what they had to work with. I feel as if the film should have made me feel something more than it did. Instead I left the theater wondering what had stood out to others that I was missing. What did I not "get"? As much as I'd like to say it moved me beyond words, the truth is it didn't but that doesn't mean I disliked the film, I just didn't love it as much as everyone else seems to.

Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) and her father Wink
(Dwight Henry) relish their primitive lifestyle.
While my grading scale on this one might be considered a little harsh it can likely be attributed to the fact that I expected so much of this film going in and came out underwhelmed. If I were going in with no preconceived notions of what to expect my entire interpretation of the film might have been different, but regardless I doubt it would contain the same amount of adoration as the majority of the reactions I've seen or heard from others. While I recommend one does go into the film with little to no idea of what is actually going on here there really isn't much more to add as it is one of those movies not necessarily about the plot points happening on screen as the feelings certain events in the lives of the characters it is following elicit. To be clear though, our protagonist is a six year-old girl who has been raised by her father in the lowest part of the delta. They exist in two separate houses that are closer in reality to boxes on sticks. Hushpuppy's is an old, worn down trailer that is elevated on top of other junk that has gathered to keep her above flood level while her father lives just across the way in what seems to be nothing more than an improvised shack. A string connects the dwellings with a bell attached on Hushpuppy's end to let her know that it's "feedin' time". The relationship between Hushpuppy and her father is the core of the film. Wink is a drunk and stuck in his ways. He refuses to leave what he knows and feels an unshakable loyalty to his home. There are few indicators to what brought him to this place or even why he has come to feel this way about the distant piece of land. I assume it is all he's ever known and change is a scary thing when you already feel so far behind. He treats his daughter with what could be called tough love, but there are times we could simply call him bipolar. It is clear in the movies best moments that he loves his daughter, he loves what she represents, what she reminds him of but most of the time he dismisses her. Forcing her to fend for herself, preparing her.

Hushpuppy is forced to learn many tough lessons
very early on in her life.
Under Hushpuppy's narration we not only become infused with her struggle to survive but we become one with her surroundings as she has. This aspect was my favorite part of the film. The way in which Zeitlin documents the bathtub, its way of life, the people that carry it out and everything else that makes it up. We get to know the bayou as much as the characters we are watching drown in its limitations and harsh conditions. We see where there affection comes from, but we don't understand their reasoning. In the midst of these lives that have become stalled by their surroundings and the harsh reality it presents we have this little girl who views it all as a kind of fairy tale. A quest even. Much has been made of Wallis's performance and I can certainly understand where they are coming from. In those moments I mentioned earlier where the film truly got to me, where my core was really shaken by the events going on on screen, most of that is due to the performance of this little girl. Much of what she does seems to be nothing more than acting her age, but we all know how hard it is to come off natural when you have a camera on you. There is that need to impress, to entertain that kicks in when we know there is the chance of others seeing it. Wallis is able to put those inhibitions aside and turn in a raw performance of truth while delivering heart wrenching moments when the script demands she be more than just a six year-old. This is also where I become torn on the film as it is clear I developed an empathetic feeling for Hushpuppy and her situation as well as being fascinated by the world in which she lives and most of the time thrives in. What I was disappointed in was the fact those ideas that Zeitlin clearly has at work here were not given a strong enough story to get them across better.

Wallis gives a great performance as she leads other kids
from the bathtub on a journey of self-discovery.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is, in reality, almost too artsy for its own good. It skews too much towards the structure of a poem rather than the medium it has decided to tell its story in. Clearly, some people will have no issues with this kind of storytelling and it is in fact different from what we are accustomed to as moviegoers. There is nothing wrong with trying new things, new things should of course always be encouraged and attempted but it just turns out that I didn't really take to this change as I might have something else. This is by no means a bad film; the characters are clearly realized and well acted, it has a great sense of what it is as a movie and I really enjoyed the music made for it as well. There is a fare amount of stuff that is interesting, especially considering the ideas it explores about innocence, childhood, and the way life or the world works without resorting to a typical message for children. It is almost a film you would want your kids to see were it not more racy than parents might like in a few parts and too scary for those that skew the same age as Hushpuppy. Maybe the story is the relationship between Wink and his daughter because I cared about that and I needed to know that she was going to make it, that she would be okay. Maybe I am just missing something, I will certainly watch the film again when it comes to DVD and see if I get more out of it upon a second viewing, but for now the most I can do is appreciate the attempt Zeitlin and his crew gave in trying to bring something mystical and different to the movie screen. I appreciate it, I really do, but to hold my interest I needed something more.


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