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Benh Zeitlin’s Feature Debut Refuses to Tame the Beasts

By tt stern-enzi · July 18th, 2012 · Movies
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Hushpuppy (dazzling yet likely to be overpraised six-year-old newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis) tells it like it is, like only a six-year-old can, but she is no ordinary child. Hushpuppy is blessed with rich awareness, self-awareness specifically, and of a kind that most adults lose somewhere along the journey toward adulthood. She believes the hype about herself. When her father Wink (Dwight Henry) loses to her while arm wrestling and shouts, “Who the man,” Hushpuppy raises her arms, flexes her tiny muscles and yells, “I’m the man,” with supreme confidence but none of the bullying boastfulness that we hear in the voices of athletes or box office champions.

And when, while relaying her story to the audience, she explains that one day, many years from now when children learn their history, they will know that “once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub,” she makes us feel like those distant relations, off somewhere in a future where life on Earth, may actually share a few of those key elements that makes The Bathtub mythic and mysterious but also a real community of survivors who knew how to live every drop of life. 

Beasts of the Southern Wild, the savage visual poem from debut director Benh Zeitlin (which he co-wrote with playwright Lucy Alibar), takes us on an adventure from its opening frame, yet what makes it so special and downright impossible to imagine in any other form, is Hushpuppy’s voice. Zeitlin and Alibar have tapped into the resiliency of childhood, the belief in magic and stories of all sorts, the sense of truth and abiding faith in doing the right thing, and even the raw pain and ability to strike back when trust is broken.

Hushpuppy is a piece of modern folklore, a new heroic archetype.

You could compare her, and by extension her story, to the Maurice Sendak classic Where the Wild Things Are and its latest adaptation by Spike Jonze, three years ago, but Max, the young protagonist, is older than Hushpuppy and his issues with anger dominate both the character and everything he touches. As realized by Jonze and novelist Dave Eggers, Max is a suburban type, the child of a traditionally broken home and, almost from the start, he finds himself railing against what has become a very conventional situation.

Hushpuppy, on the other hand, has seemingly been cursed by circumstance beyond mere broken traditions. She is nearly orphaned, marooned in Louisiana with a sick, alcoholic father, living in porous trailers or in the back of a floating truck bed, surrounded by a community of folks who, like her father, refuse to leave for dry land. But rather than wallow in anger or victimhood, Hushpuppy and Wink and the ragtag peoples of The Bathtub live fiercely and love the life that they have.

A far better comparison for Hushpuppy and the film might be the work of novelist Toni Morrison. Going all the way back to her debut The Bluest Eye, Morrison has captured the raw voices of her characters, usually young girls and women, knee deep in existential and practical everyday blues. History bears down on them, strips them, does everything but bury them alive, and yet still they live, to either tell their tales or have them told by someone else. Pecola Breedlove, the subject of The Bluest Eye, endures abuse and neglect from all angles and longs for the one thing that she believes will make her whole and worthy of love — blue eyes — but someone else must present her story to the audience.

It is the telling of her own story that transforms Hushpuppy into someone, somebody that we will remember. She hears the heartbeat of the world, every creature living and mythic, like the aurochs, large wild boars that were once the kings of the world, and strives to give voice to it all. She is in nearly every frame, which, from a performance standpoint, means a herculean effort went into maintaining a work environment that would support Wallis and ensure that she would be able to shine as she does. The simple take on this would be to assume that Wallis is merely playing some version of herself, because how else could you explain the narrative nuances to a child of that age? But even that illustrates that there still has to something special about Wallis. 

Regardless, once there were Beasts of the Southern Wild and their story was something to behold. (PG-13) Grade: A

CONTACT TT STERN-ENZI: letters@citybeat.com



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