THE REEL: ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ is one of the most original films of 2012

Ben Conniff

First-time director Benh Zeitlin crafts a beautifully original fantasy told through the eyes of young Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a girl confronted with outstanding circumstances that ultimately teach her the ways of hope, courage and love in the film “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

It’s hard for me to adequately describe this film after just one viewing. I think it’s one that requires multiple looks, but to sum up my initial feelings: there’s nothing out there quite like “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

Along with “The Cabin in the Woods” and “Looper,” this is one of the most wildly original films of 2012. It’s a grounded human drama that plays somewhat like a pseudo-documentary with its voice-overs and events that look eerily similar to what happened in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. That aspect is almost like watching a reality series from Discovery Channel. 

But there are fantasy elements peppered in with the creatures that make this a true genre-bender. With an IMDb-estimated budget of under $2 million, a cast full of unknowns, and a rookie director, “Beasts” really has nothing to lose, so it’s amazing how they come together to create a picture that values imagination and human spirit over studio money while still managing to be visually striking in a down-to-earth fashion. I’ve not seen anything like it before, and I wish more movies were made this way. 

I loved all the characters, and I think the film soars thanks to a marvelous performance from young Wallis. Telling a human story that’s as dark as “Beasts of the Southern Wild” might need a bit of the edge taken off in order to be accepted by audiences, and this is done by telling it through the innocent eyes of a 6-year-old girl. Hushpuppy had me rooting for her all the way.  

The film also features a wonderful turn from Dwight Henry as Hushpuppy’s father, Wink. He’s rough around the edges and is responsible for much of the darkness in his daughter’s life, but Wink has a good heart, even if it is killing him. Henry really puts on his character’s skin and makes us truly believe he’s been a bayou boy his whole life. 

SPOILERS: The “beasts” in question could be a pack of giant, ancient, boar-like creatures called aurochs that are unleashed when the ice caps melt. (The melting of the ice caps and coincidental flooding of Hushpuppy’s Louisiana Delta community is one of the outstanding circumstances in her life.) But I think the true “Beasts of the Southern Wild” are the people of “The Bathtub,” Hushpuppy’s community. These are resilient, resourceful people that use whatever means they can to survive.

I’d recommend “Beasts of the Southern Wild” to anyone looking to stray from the norm of typical Hollywood offerings. It’s a fantastical celebration of the human spirit that manages to keep its feet on the ground thanks to sheer imagery as well as marvelous performances from its cast. It’s currently nominated for four Oscars.