Quvenshané {qua•VEN•zha•nay} Wallis was born to play Hushpuppy, the plucky little protagonist in this film I mentioned  in an earlier post: Beasts of the Southern Wild, a radiant frenzy of a film about a lost child finding her way by following the pulses around her. And everything has a pulse in this film: the drills above the levee, the distant lighthouse, raindrops on the water, the lighted sign of the brothel, pots of boiling water. Hopefully every lug and his uncle will see and talk about Beasts now that Oprah featured it on Super Soul Sunday today. President Obama told her about it and she’s telling the world.

What a great break for an indie film made on a crawfish budget through a collaborative effort. 29-year-old director, Benh Zeitlin and his childhood friend Lucy Alibar wrote the screenplay based on Alibar’s play, Juicy and Delicious.  They and their Court 13 cohorts like to make stuff;  it’s about process,  using what’s available, and what happens to show up ~ Dwight Henry, who plays the father, showed up to audition from his bakery across the street from the casting location; and Zeitlin’s truck blew up on the set one day so they used what was let of it for Wink and Hushpuppy’s boat.

Inside that kind of immediacy many wonderful things thrive, such as handiness, simultaneity, and conscious chaos.

It’s not easy to get voice-over narration right and most filmmakers who try fail miserably. Beasts gets it right and shows us what’s possible when you’re married to process. In Robert McKee’s Story seminar he teaches this as the test of effective narration: if all the VO narration were stripped out, would the story still be beautifully told? I agree with McKee’s take on Beasts ~ you could strip it of the narration and most of the dialog and it would still fly. A writing teacher of mine years ago said:

“Every word is a dollar. How much are you spending?”

Same applies for film, even more so because the eye can tolerate more on the page than the ear can on the screen.  The narration and dialog rings  true because Zeitlin’s process included asking the actors a simple question “How would you say this?”

“When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me flying around in invisible pieces.”   ~ Hushpuppy

I went to a Q & A with one of the film’s producers, and a woman asked why so much alcohol consumption in the story? Important question given the destructive nature of alcohol in American culture, but the producer did not have an answer  and gave a disappointing guess, for it was surely not about “celebration”.

Poet Nikky Finney says the artists’ responsibility is to “not look away”. In facing the truth of this story’s world, alcohol is a coping mechanism, a painkiller, a sleeping pill for people on the edge to endure  that harsh, brutal life in the bayou. THIS was the truth in the world of the story, and a better answer to the question. That said, imagine the film working without the drinking, because it’s a fairy tale. I bought into the giant, mystical aurochs as Hushpuppy’s demons of death…

…so I would’ve had no problem accepting wildly awkward,
souls on the edge drunk on life’s wonders, tormented by its rage,

dramatizing the idea that nobody gets
to decide for you what and where you call home.

Henry deftly portrays Hushpuppy’s tormented, alcoholic father, Wink. He tries to save their community even as he prepares his tenderly tough daughter for its death, and his own. Henry says the role was difficult—not only because he had never acted and was often coached in the wee hours while rolling out pastry dough—but because he’s not at all like the character; he’s a devoted father of five who does not drink. But he comes from those waters and, like Wallis, was destined for the part. She was only five when they shot the film, winning the role over 4,000 girls 6-9 years old. (yep, she lied about her age at the audition).

This bold, original, complex story is masterfully told with creative, chaotic simplicity; it’s a near perfect film because almost all the elements work. What didn’t? The hand-held camera angles were at times too much of a good thing for me, making the film’s realism too conspicuous—but my daughter loved them. Bottom line: the things that work are so brilliant that I forgave.
You may or may not like  Beasts of the Southern Wild, but if you have a pulse you will not leave the theatre unmoved, one way or another.

Please support this film. See it in theaters, tell your friends.