Beasts Of The Southern Wild was one of two surprises among the nine Best Picture nominees – Amour was the other, since foreign-language films rarely show up outside of their Best Foreign-Language Film ghetto – and the only one that was already gone from theaters and available for home viewing when the nominees were announced. It’s a low-budget film set in the Louisiana Bayou and relied on locals in both the crew and the cast, giving the performances an authenticity that carries a ho-hum storyline to the level where it might be mentioned among the year’s best films.
Beasts follows the adorable five-year-old Hushpuppy (played by nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis, now the youngest-ever Best Actress nominee, and the actress whose dress I am most interested in seeing), resident of an impoverished Bayou settlement called the Bathtub, along with her ailing, ill-tempered father Wink (Dwight Henry, a baker with no prior acting experience) and a handful of local eccentrics. The town is cut off from the rest of the region by a levee, although the residents seem to share the laissez les bon temps rouler philosophy of greater New Orleans. Climate change threatens the Bathtub’s very existence, which the local and unconventional schoolteacher Bathsheba (Gina Montana, also an amateur) explains to the children in terms of Aurochs, giant boar-like creatures who have been trapped in the Earth’s icecaps for centuries but who will be freed as the ice melts. When Wink’s situation and that of the Bathtub both take turns for the worse, Hushpuppy and her friends take off on a raft to try to find her long-absent mother.
The casting decisions, including giving three of the biggest roles to amateurs, absolutely made this film, as the plot, which relies on some magical realism but probably could have gone farther in that regard, is actually pretty slight. Wallis’ performance is pretty mind-blowing given her age, although her tiny stature also gives you the impression that you’re watching an actual five-year-old deliver these lines and scream and burp on command. I was even more shocked by Henry’s performance once I read that he wasn’t a professional actor – his role demands a broad range of emotions and the ability to switch between them with very little transition, and his determination to keep Hushpuppy away from the obvious consequences of his illness for as long as possible conveys such a deep affection that it seems hard to believe it’s not real. (Then again, I’m imagining the whole cast and crew fell in love with Wallis after a few days.) Even Montana shines as the one discordant note in the community, talking in apocalyptic (and prescient) terms while she shares a giant beer-and-shellfish feast with her neighbors.
Unfortunately, the story seemed a little half-baked, or maybe three-quarters-baked, and while some people (like my wife) like their chocolate chip cookies pulled from the oven when the center is still a little on the gooey side, I prefer mine fully cooked. We don’t get a lot of character development beyond Hushpuppy, and the main internal conflicts aren’t resolved. The (mostly white) authorities who forcibly evacuate the Bathtub at one point are stock villains, more than a little unfair to people who were probably largely volunteers or just underpaid in reality. Beasts‘ plot doesn’t make enough use of the Aurochs or any of the magical realism potential unlocked by Bathsheba’s preaching, but it doesn’t dwell quite enough on the serious aspects of anything that goes on in the film, even Wink’s illness. If this was intended to make a broad statement about the impact of climate change, I don’t think it went far enough. The kids’ quest for Hushpuppy’s mama is a beautiful sequence, a short story that could almost stand on its own, but the rest of the plot tended to drift rather than find itself propelled by its own energy.
The film’s nomination for Best Picture seems like a stretch to me, although the only films I’ve seen other than this one that might have been worthy, Looper and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, weren’t obviously better, and either one could have dropped into the unused tenth nomination slot. (Looper absolutely deserved a Best Original Screenplay nod, though.) The absurd nomination among the four that Beasts earned was the Best Director nod for Benh Zeitlin over, among others, Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow, which I can only assume was politically motivated. Zero Dark Thirty was far more ambitious and more difficult to craft, including the intense final scene in the Abbottabad house, thus far the single best segment of any 2012 movie I’ve seen. For Bigelow to end up on the outside while Zeitlin got a nod is … peculiar, to say the least.