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Quvenzhané Wallis exudes youthful innocence and sincerity as the young heroine fighting the waters that threaten to wash away the Louisiana bayou shacks she and her ailing father call home. Wallis, all of six years old on screen, plays Hushpuppy, the courageous, spirited youth at the heart of Beasts of the Southern Wild, Director Benh Zeitlin's fantastical drama set in the Isle de Jean Charles community known as "the Bathtub" due to its location on the wrong side of the levee. The universe begins to collapse around Hushpuppy when her father gets sick, and she takes his ailments, melting ice caps and ferocious beasts in limber stride. Beasts of the Southern Wild is exuberant and affecting; displaying a rare intimacy unencumbered by the typical constraints on structure and pacing. Wallis is a revelation. Her performance is pure and seemingly uncoached, and I suspect she is not so much acting as living.
The Bathtub lies on the back side of the New Orleans levee, and a handful of residents risks life and livelihood each time a storm rolls in and floods their homes. Hushpuppy lives with her tough-loving father Wink (Dwight Henry) and fearlessly roams the natural landscape outside her raised shack. Hushpuppy learns survival skills at school; a necessity since these bayou outlanders dissociate with the government and urban society. Wink returns after a two-day absence wearing a hospital gown and bracelet, and Hushpuppy doesn't need to be told that something is wrong. A particularly nasty storm sends many residents fleeing to higher ground, and the ones that stay barely escape with their lives. Homes and livestock are left in shambles, and Hushpuppy joins Wink and the other survivors in celebrating their fierce, foolhardy independence.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is an impressive first feature for Zeitlin, who, by using amateur actors, creates an authentic on-screen reality. The film follows Hushpuppy as she learns to fish and "beast" a steamed crab by cracking it open without using a knife. Wink struggles to raise a young girl alone - Wink tells Hushpuppy her mom left because her heart beat too fast when she saw Hushpuppy - and lashes out at Hushpuppy with the ultimate goal of keeping her safe. Hushpuppy sets her shack on fire during an amusing tantrum, which infuriates Wink, who tells Hushpuppy she can't do any "girl stuff" inside his shelter. Wink knows his days are numbered, and works to toughen up his free-spirited daughter.
Wallis attacks each task and scene with untainted energy and joy. Hushpuppy proves an unusually wise narrator, and reveals her pains and triumphs without pretense or embarrassment. Hushpuppy remarks that she hasn't been held since she was a baby. This motherless little girl has a tough exterior, but her father's intangible love doesn't always quell Hushpuppy's hunger for affection. The bayou is inhabited by a host of colorful characters, including no-nonsense teacher Miss Bathsheba (Gina Montana) and several colorful drunks that illustrate the problem of alcohol abuse in poor communities. Zeitlin imagined the film's piecemeal shacks and vehicles while recovering from a bad car accident, and the Bathtub becomes its own colorful character.
Zeitlin shoots in fluid, near-constant motion on 16 mm, which gives the film a gritty look to match its unforgiving setting. Pops of color and light give the film character, and Zeitlin follows Hushpuppy as she runs through underbrush and skips across tide pools. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a celebration of life, with authentic characters and heavy burdens for Hushpuppy to bear. Wallis is the film's beating heart, and her character's relationship with Wink is both heartbreaking and effortlessly amusing. Beasts of the Southern Wild is universally affecting, and that a child carries it on her shoulders makes it even more special.
The film's 1.85:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer champions the strengths and mutes the weaknesses of its 16 mm source. There's an inherent grittiness to the image, and the 16 mm stock is certainly not as crisp or detailed as 35 mm or digital photography. Nevertheless, the lowered resolution and increased grain work to the film's benefit, creating a gorgeous, rough appearance that complements the setting. Detail is still fairly impressive, and the image remains nicely textured under the grain. Colors are very strong and absolutely pop, especially in the scene where Hushpuppy runs around carrying fireworks. Blacks are inky, and crush is never distracting. Compression artifacts are not an issue, and no edge enhancement or grain reduction soils the image.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is quite impressive, and makes surprising use of the rear and surround speakers. Viewers are placed amid the raging storm outside Hushpuppy and Wink's shelter; fireworks explode and whirl throughout the sound field; and the nature's orchestra surrounds the viewer. Dialogue is crisp and clean, and the score is nicely balanced amid dialogue and effects. The subwoofer is frequently called upon to provide bass support, and the surround speakers remain in constant use. A Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital mix is also included, as are English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
Fox gives Beasts of the Southern Wild its "combo pack" treatment. The set includes the Blu-ray, a DVD copy and iTunes-compatible digital copy. The discs are housed in a Blu-ray eco-case, which is wrapped in a white-rimmed, glossy slipcover. The extras are as follows:
- Deleted Scenes (14:00/HD) - Zeitlin provides commentary for these deleted scenes, which feature more shots from around the Bathtub.
- Auditions (15:15/SD) - It's understandable the filmmakers hired Wallis and Henry after seeing these auditions!
- The Making of Beasts of the Southern Wild (22:27/HD) - This is a nice behind-the-scenes piece in which the filmmakers reveal their inspirations for the project, filming challenges and how they created visual effects on a limited budget.
- Glory at Sea (25:44/HD) - This is Zeitlin's short film that features some of the same themes and natural challenges as his eventual feature.
- Music (3:06/HD) - This piece is about the film's score and features comments from Zeitlin and composer Dan Romer.
- The Aurochs (3:18/HD) - This short piece concerns the beasts that Hushpuppy imagines throughout the film.
- Theatrical Trailer (1:53/HD).
Six-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis is captivating as Hushpuppy, an adventurous child from the Louisiana bayou who lives with her father on the wrong side of the levee. Beasts of the Southern Wild follows Hushpuppy as she faces her father's mortality and the loss of her surroundings, and Wallis performs without pretense. The film feels like a peek into the lives of real families, and first-time director Benh Zeitlin captures an authentic world rarely seen by outsiders. Beasts of the Southern Wild is moving entertainment, highlighted by a terrific performance from its young star. Highly Recommended.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.