Film Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild (Studiocanal UK; 2012)

By Damien McLaughlin

After reading that it had won the Caméra d'Or Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, I went into Beasts of the Southern Wild with high hopes, despite knowing nothing of the film’s young director, Benh Zeitlin. That said, I also went into it with little idea of what exactly the film was going to be about. I’d seen it referred to as an ‘eco-drive’ and ‘a film with a message’. Alternatively, on the QFT’s website I read that it concerned, ‘pre-historic creatures that have been unleashed from the melting polar ice-caps who are rampaging across the planet.’

I struggled to understand how that would translate on screen. Nonetheless, I was intrigued – and I wasn’t let down. Beasts of the Southern Wild is the best new release I’ve seen in months.

It follows six-year-old Hushpuppy and her father, Wink, as they struggle through rising water levels in their swampy paradise ‘The Bathtub’. The pre-historic creatures angle is rarely used as a major plot point, but their background presence effectively adds to the suspense and underlying fear throughout.

The film was made with a crew of unknown actors, and Dwight Henry in his role as Wink is passionate and entirely believable. His performance would be even

more praiseworthy if it weren’t completely outshone by his on-screen daughter, played by Quvenzhané Wallis. Wallis, only five at the time of auditioning for the part, is convincing and never seems strained. She is also able to burp on cue; even the coldest of souls won’t be able to suppress a chuckle.

But the film isn’t all cutesy either: there are eviscerated wolves, devastated homes, and even an Inbetweeners-esque punching of a fish, which all work together to prove that Beasts of the Southern Wild is no more a children’s film than a film like Pan’s Labyrinth.

The film’s most impressive section comes in the first ten minutes, as a panorama view of The Bathtub is shown in all its drunken glory. The uplifting soundtrack, the fireworks and some shaky-yet-bewitching camera work, blends to create a fantastic, memorable few minutes of film. If I have any criticism, it’s that nothing that comes after quite reaches that standard of visual creativity.

Beasts of the Southern Wild can be seen as an ‘eco-drive’ or a ‘film with a message’ – the setting and subject evoking memories of hurricane Katrina, and Hushpuppy’s narration making a more compelling argument for environmental balance than Al Gore ever could – but even if you disregard that kind of context, the film still works wonderfully well.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is thought provoking, funny, and more entertaining than any of the major films that you’ll find screening currently.

 Beasts of the Southern Wild is screening in the Queens Film Theatre until the 8th of November. For listings click here.