Support Local Journalism. Join Riverfront Times Press Club.

A child — and child performer endures in Beasts 

Quvenzhané Wallis stars as Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Fox Searchlight

Quvenzhané Wallis stars as Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild.

A zealous gumbo of regionalism, magical realism, post-Katrina allegory, myth and ecological parable, Beasts of the Southern Wild, the southern Louisiana-set debut feature of 29-year-old Benh Zeitlin, rests, often cloyingly, on the tiny shoulders of Quvenzhané Wallis. Her character, Hushpuppy, the film's six-year-old (also Wallis' age during filming) protagonist and narrator, is meant to recall the resilience that Lillian Gish, addressing her flock of itty-bitty orphans and runaways, spoke of so memorably in The Night of the Hunter (1955): "When you're little, you have more endurance than God is ever to grant you again. Children are man at his strongest. They abide."

Co-written by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar, whose play Juicy and Delicious served as the film's starting point, and using a cast of locals, almost all of whom make their acting debut here, Beasts of the Southern Wild strains to remind us of Hushpuppy's wisdom and courage beyond her years. She is a motherless child: "She swam away,"explains her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), a chronically ill, frequently drunk man, of Mom's absence. He and Hushpuppy live in separate trailers in a grassy, overgrown expanse in a fictional bayou area called the Bathtub. Stomping around her ramshackle, squalid domain in white plastic rain boots, dirty T-shirt and orange Underoos, this peewee heroine confidently wields a blowtorch. Perhaps saluting his child's precocious strength, Wink refers to Hushpuppy as "boss," "boss lady," and the gender discordant "man,"whether exhorting her to cover up ("Get your pants on, man!") or goading her to flex her pecs ("Who's tha man?").

This little girl will need to prove her might repeatedly. Her neighborhood is washed away by a hurricane, her father grows sicker and sicker, and she fearlessly stares down enormous, rampaging creatures called aurochs — actual prehistoric animals, here reimagined as giant wild boars, unleashed by the melting of the ice caps or by Hushpuppy's fervent imagination. Yet all of these disasters are merely part of Hushpuppy's grand cosmic lesson: "I see that I'm a little piece of a big, big universe, and that makes things right,"she says in voiceover, an aural blanketing as unremitting as the swampy, string-heavy score, co-composed by Zeitlin.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is not the first project by Zeitlin to feature a young African American girl as its first-person narrator. Glory at Sea, his 25-minute short from 2008, which shares Beasts' diluvial setting and multiracial, marginalized Louisiana denizens, is told from the perspective of a child under water. The missteps of Beasts aren't necessarily rooted in the voice that Zeitlin assumes (presumptuously at worst, naively at best) to tell this uplifting story of survival and fortitude — both Hushpuppy's and her Bathtub neighbors'. But in trying through incessant narration to make a six-year-old a prolix sage, Zeitlin can't avoid falling into sticky sentimentality.

That's a shame, because Wallis, whom Zeitlin cast after auditioning more than 3,000 other little girls, has such a commanding presence onscreen — never more so than when the camera observes her up close and in silence, before the music, Hushpuppy's maxim-filled voiceover, and Wink's bellowing kick in. In Beasts' opening scene, Hushpuppy quietly entertains herself by playing with a small mound of dirt in her trailer and clutching, almost too hard, a chick in her tiny hand. Her intense concentration during these moments — in which she becomes aware of her power over beings smaller and more vulnerable than she is — is the one image I'll never forget from this film, despite its many effulgent scenes of Roman candles, drunken revelries and unfazed mariners on jury-rigged boats after the storm. For it seems the truest, simplest expression of what Zeitlin is trying so relentlessly, if with the best intentions, to honor: a child's understanding of responsibility, both to herself and others. In that one precious instant, Hushpuppy becomes, like pint-size Ana in The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) or, more recently, Iris in Night Catches Us (2010), a witness to forces within and without her — while still unmistakably remaining a child. 

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.

Now Playing

Beasts of the Southern Wild is not showing in any theaters in the area.

What others are saying

  • Speaking of...

    Read the Digital Print Issue

    June 16, 2021

    View more issues

    Newsletters

    Never miss a beat

    Sign Up Now

    Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.

    Best Things to Do In St. Louis

    © 2021 Riverfront Times

    Website powered by Foundation