It is very rare that you leave the cinema feeling utterly transformed. But give Beasts of the Southern Wild an hour and a half of your time and it will deliver just that. This Oscar frontrunner is a rampage of gritty genius: a brutal exploration of the lives of forgotten people, stripped to the bewilderingly beautiful core.
We are introduced to Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father Wink (Dwight Henry) who live together in the ‘Bathtub’, an American bayou community surrounded by rising water. Wink’s dwindling health prematurely plunges Hushpuppy headfirst into a pool of independence.
In an age of Hollywood explosions and erotica, it’s refreshing to watch a film that just tells you a story – and tells it brilliantly. Based on Lucy Alibar’s one-act play Juicy and Delicious, she and writer/director Benh Zeitlin create a narrative with power and elegance in its simplicity. We are overwhelmed by a sense of love and loss, cohesion and chaos and eventually by an acceptance of life in its messiest, most wonderful form.
Zeitlin’s use of untapped talent brings a new, raw dimension to the film, with both main roles played by newcomers. 9-year-old Wallis, dubbed a “miniature force of nature” by critics, makes a stunning debut – with every onscreen moment as compelling as the last. She’s allegedly the favourite for Best Actress at the Oscars – not bad for a first-timer. Despite their tumultuous relationship, Hushpuppy and her father are fiercely protective of one another and their palpable onscreen chemistry brings this complexity to life. In an interview, Wallis describes meeting Henry for the first time and exclaiming to the production team: “He’s the one!”
The cinematography is gorgeous, with explosions of light and colour juxtaposed with sparse, monochromatic landscapes. The perfect backdrop is set for a film that helps you find beauty in the most desolate and desperate situations.
This winner of the Sundance Festival’s Grand Jury Prize is utterly haunting in all the right ways. Scenes, characters and dialogue race around your head for days after the credits roll. After all, it’s not often that a low-budget indie flick is given such a warm reception by both critics and the box office, and Beasts of the Southern Wild’s surprising success should be taken as a testament to its outstanding quality and resonance.