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"Beasts of the Southern Wild" beautiful, but still falls short

01/30/2013

It’s safe to say that 2012 was a great year to go to the movies-- there were plenty of box office blockbusters from veteran directors, and some pleasant surprises from first-timers at film festivals too.

New York-native Benh Zeitlin’s drama fantasy “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is not one such surprise. It’s a little more complicated than that.

Released on June 27th, 2012, the movie tells the story of Hushpuppy, played by the adorable and talented Quvenzhané Wallis. She received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her performance.

At the time of filming, Wallis was only six years old; she’s nine now, and still the youngest nominee by at least four years.

Hushpuppy lives in the Delta bayou area of Louisiana with her alcoholic father Wink, played by Dwight Henry. Together they eke out an existence in the rag-tag community of “The Bathtub,” home to some of Louisiana’s finest examples of alcoholic trash people.

Wink isn’t the most loving father figure to Hushpuppy. His working theory for raising his daughter seems to be to virtually neglect her, so that when he dies of alcohol poisoning or liver failure she won’t notice him being gone.

Unfortunately, Hushpuppy’s mother is nowhere to be found—she left Wink shortly after giving birth. Frequently throughout the film, Hushpuppy finds herself wishing for her mother to appear and bring stability to her life. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t happen.

Although it’s never implicitly stated, Hurricane Katrina makes an appearance in the film as well. As Hushpuppy grows and the relationship between her and her father changes, similarly catastrophic change is wrought on the ecosystem of the bayou when the storm makes landfall.

There’s a lot of sadness in “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” All of the adults who appear in the film live pathetic lives and drown their sorrow in drink. As the storm of the century prepares to wash their very homes from beneath their feet, residents of the Bathtub have better things to do... like get completely smashed.

It’s not pretty, but that’s part of what made the movie interesting. It’s shocking to think that people could actually live this way, much less raise a child in those conditions.

However, the grittiness of the bayou has a strange effect on the precocious Hushpuppy—it tempers her. Through the fires of adversity and loss, Hushpuppy finds the inner strength her father tried so hard to instill in her.

Instead of being stifled by the stagnation surrounding her, Hushpuppy’s character shines through it like a beacon on the horizon.

There’s no doubt about it: “Beasts of the Southern Wild” was made for Quvenzhané Wallis. It’s been nominated for four Academy Awards in the categories of Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actress.

But for all that, Zeitlin falls short of really impressing this critic. His movie is heartfelt, original and even beautiful because of Wallis’ performance, but just isn’t all that compelling in the end.

By all means, see “Beasts of the Southern Wild;” just don’t buy too deeply into the hype surrounding it.

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