Beasts of the Southern Wild ★★★★★

I don’t like to make an immediate impression on a film when it’s this astoundingly complex and this narratively intimate. There are far too many elements to touch upon in a review, and too many that will pass over my head that I’ll analyze on the second go around, but one thing is for certain: Beasts of the Southern Wild is a masterpiece, a movie of such emotional resonance that I don’t remember the last time a main performance struck me this much. Maybe it’s also due to Quvenzhané Willis’s strikingly impressive debut, a 6-year old actress who brings such strength and aggression to a role that any other actress would overdo. The movie demands to be taken seriously because of her, and that’s because she’s doing the same; she is trying to find herself in a world that she doesn’t fully understand. The performance does wonders for the film and its address of loss, hope, and acceptance that it’s extremely difficult to encapsulate the idea of this performance into mere words. It’s brilliance, and the vision here is something that, even if you don’t care for, you have to admire, with there being such tenderness and warmth that is so rarely seen in films these days. It’s a work of art that’s been crafted with precision.

Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Willis) and her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), live in the Bathtub, a place that resembles post-Katrina New Orleans, as it’s divided by levees that seem to be protecting one of the groups; is it protecting the land dwellers, or these people enjoying their lives in this seeming paradise (for them, at least)? They are content with their position, and the opening scene captures that in five key minutes, establishing setting, characters, and the tone the film carries throughout. We see how they live: almost barbaric, but simplistic, skinning animals yet also caring for them, and living in shacks/huts that lack protection. Hushpuppy, despite eating animals and understanding their place in her ecosystem, listens to them sometimes just to see if she can understand them. Most of the time she can’t, as she mentions in her voiceovers, but she still wants to connect with this nature in some capacity.

She might just be searching for something to replace the void her mother has left. We’re not sure what exactly happened there, but the mother is no longer taking care of them; Wink wants Hushpuppy to learn to take care of herself, but that might derive from the loss he’s felt too. He talks about how him and Hushpuppy’s mother would just sit there and stare at one another, not saying a word; they just connected. Yet now he can’t seem to stop talking, always telling Hushpuppy what to do and trying to teach her how to be independent. There’s something lonely about that idea, wanting to survive on your own; rather, learning how to do it because you’ll need to. He used to care so much for this woman and try to live together with her, but now she’s gone, and he’s forcing him and his daughter to survive on their own. She’s six years old, after all, and that’s daunting, even from his strong girl’s perspective.

There’s a threat coming that makes sense for their preparation. The icecaps are melting, and with that comes a breed that has been frozen in them for many years: the aurochs. What seem to resemble large boars, they mirror something we see earlier in the film, with Hushpuppy taking care of a tired-looking boar by her house; she cares for these animals more so than any other young girl I’ve seen. She sees more compassion and humanity in every single element of life that is just miraculous, and that plays into how her perception affects her world as time goes along. She’s strong in that regard, obviously evidenced by her father asking her to show him how strong she is; she flexes at one point after breaking open a crab to show her father how independent she can be. It’s a slightly silly moment, but the intensity on Willis’s face shows how seriously we should take this material. She has quite a few instances like that. It’s incredible.

I’d be lying if I said I’ve seen a better performance this year, or in many years. Willis brings such a commanding presence that even a fiercely emotional actress, grown or child, couldn’t come close to the humanity that emerges from this little girl. In a key moment near the end of the film, in which I won’t describe what is exactly happening, Hushpuppy is looking into her father’s eyes and seeing where they’re both at. She’s returned from a crucial, life-changing stop, and they both acknowledge what’s happening, as she’s officially grown into the person he wanted her to become. The look in both of their eyes as they tell each other not to cry is so moving and full of weak heart that I found it impactful; when they finally burst out in tears, still trying to fight it, it’s one of the most rewarding scenes I could’ve asked for. There are too many scenes that eerily match that impact in various ways, and I’m not sure how it was even possible to put together something so strong.

Benh Zeitlin has a directorial debut here; it’s one of the best you’ll ever see. There’s so much strength, confidence, and clear artistic presence that it’s astounding this isn’t from an established, highly-regarded director. He employs so many techniques that most directors would discover much later in their careers, and he writes in a way that feels poetic; the voiceovers resemble Days of Heaven, and that reminds me of Terrence Malick and how much of that influence I saw here. I thought The Tree of Life was the best film of last year because it carried much of the same aura about it, but this one has more of a linear drive, thematic consistency, and character study than I could’ve anticipated. In that regard, it plays over the audience far smoother; I see less of a divide happening because of it. That doesn’t mean it’s an easy watch. It’s a commanding, assertive one that requires your attention and focus on the themes at hand, with plenty abounding.

This is a cast of nobodies delivering performances that feel real. I don’t mean to say that as the film feeling realistic, but it just doesn’t feel like acting. These people inhabit this world and make it one of the most vibrant, unique ones I’ve come across in years. The Bathtub is a creation that is truly unrivaled in its scope and ambition, both inhabiting the world we live in today while establishing itself as its own entity. The comparisons to Katrina/New Orleans will arise, and I could probably write an entire article on how that relates, but I won’t. This is a film not about its mirroring but about its characters and their struggles; this little girl finds such strength that when facing an auroch late in the film, she stands her ground against a beast so fierce that it’s known for tearing others apart. If that doesn’t embody what a strong character should be, I’m not sure what does.

That’s masterful filmmaking if I’ve ever seen it, and that’s one of the best young performances I’ve ever seen. Willis will earn an Oscar nomination, I guarantee it, because she conveys emotion in ways that enhance our perception of the film and this world as a whole. Without those key facial expressions and the intimacy, and distancing, from her father, this film wouldn’t work. But it brings forth the intricate complexities of both of their characters (the father of which is very complex as well, but I feel I could write far too much on him) and makes the movie pop under Zeitlin’s clear focus. I tend to overstate things when it comes to how much I admire specific films, but I’ll be damned if I find a film that played over me as well as this one did. Maybe I just enjoy movies too much, but it’s going to be difficult to find a movie I can rave about as much as this one. I feel like writing another review on things I didn’t even touch upon. That has to count for something: this being a great film.