Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) – Buzz is an interesting thing. Sometimes it can clue you into a great little movie you wouldn’t have otherwise seen or possibly even heard of. Other times it can overhype something to the point where the results will be disappointing because your expectations were just so damn high. So every year film festivals like Sundance roll around and certain films are the immediately most talked-about. Bidding wars start for the distribution rights for movies with great commercial or awards potential. People start to pick potential Oscar winners about a year in advance. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a film that came out of Sundance with a great deal of buzz for its director Benh Zeitlin and the powerhouse lead performance of its 6-year-old star Quvenzhané Wallis. So obviously I had to check out any movie that people were saying would land a six-year-old an Oscar nomination, but was this one of those cases of justified buzz or overdone hype?

Wallis plays Hushpuppy, a young girl who lives (more-or-less self-sufficiently) in an area of Louisiana called “the Bathtub.” The Bathtub is a bayou community that is so poor and totally off the grid that it borders on being a shantytown. Hushpuppy’s father Wink (Dwight Henry) provides her with a roof and food (though she cooks for herself… not always to good results) but he has some health problems that jeopardize the already tenuous stability of their family unit. Hushpuppy’s mother already left shortly after she gave birth. Another threat to the status quo is the Katrina-like storm that rolls through, flooding the Bathtub. In Hushpuppy’s vivid imagination this unleashed prehistoric beasts called aurochs (resembling giant boars more than actual aurochs) from being frozen in the polar ice caps. It’s all a very surreal approach to the story.

So awards season comes around January, so that gives us a good four months to learn just how the hell to pronounce “Quvenzhané.” That little girl gives such an authentic and charismatic performance that I find it hard to believe various awards-giving organizations will be able to forget about her when awards-giving season rolls around. She’s already been cast in Steve McQueen’s next film (um, the British director of Shame, not the dead American movie star) and I think if she maintains this level of quality in her roles she will go very far. At six-years-old there’s a lot of future ahead of her. The movie itself didn’t wow me so much. The magical realism approach to a Katrina-like disaster sounded full of promise, but the film drags a lot buoyed only by the fantastic lead performance. It works as a vehicle for said performance, but as a film in itself the movie fails to engage. Plus, not to get overly political or whatever, but the insistence of these people to remain self-sufficient at all costs (and boy, does it cost) kind of destroys some sympathy for them. This didn’t really dawn on me until one guy in the theater actually made a groan of frustration when certain characters escape from a government relief shelter. The movie is a great showcase for the talents of Quvenzhané Wallis, but it never feels like a movie really worthy of such an impressive debut.

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