‘Beast’ child performance lifts ‘Wild’ to greatness

WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley has never seen anything quite like "Beasts of the Southern Wild."

Jason Fraley, WTOP film critic

WASHINGTON – Did you wait to see “The Artist” or “Slumdog Millionaire” after they won Best Picture?

The next indie tidal wave is coming — and here’s your chance to get in on the ground floor.

There’s a little film just starting to trickle into theaters that you will soon be hearing a lot about. It’s already taken the festival circuit by storm, winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and the Golden Camera at Cannes. Yet for all its acclaim, the film is so unique, so poetic, and so oddly magical amidst such real conditions, that even those who reject the “artsy” will eat it up.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” thrives off the powerhouse performance of its 6- year-old star, Quvenzhane Wallis. She plays the equally tough and adorable Hushpuppy, who lays out her mission, and the basic plot, in simple narration: “In a million years, when kids go to school, they’re gonna know that once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub.”

The Bathtub is the loving nickname of her southern delta home, where folks live in third-world conditions on the “wrong side” of a levee. To them, it’s the right side, because it’s all they know. In their eyes, those who live on the dry side are babies. Thus, they ignore calls for evacuation and forgo modern amenities in a self-reliant existence, preferring to be set on fire and sent down a river than to be plugged into a wall at a hospital or nursing home.

The community is metaphorically at world’s end, where adults tell children doomsday scenarios of the South Pole melting, unleashing a great flood and freeing prehistoric beasts known as Aurochs. As Hushpuppy says, “If it weren’t for the Ice Age, I wouldn’t even be Hushpuppy. I’d be breakfast.”

The fantasy creatures are clearly the stuff of child imagination, and there is no insistence that these mythical beasts actually exist. They’re the tall tales we believe as kids, inspiring our actions and shaping our growth. In truth, they’re simply a metaphor for her own growth into a “beast,” whether she can learn to stare down the childish fears of her youth.

Hushpuppy’s “coming of age” journey hinges on two primal urges: searching for her long-lost mother and coming to terms with her father.

The former is a quest for identity, seeking a mother so hot she never had to light the stove; the water would boil on its own. This mother left when Hushpuppy was a child, and now the young girl talks to a knockoff Michael Jordan jersey with her mother’s face drawn on top, like Tom Hanks’ Wilson volleyball.

The latter is a quest for acceptance by her intense father, Wink (Dwight Henry), an ailing alcoholic with a mysterious disease, but whose love for his daughter is never in doubt. He expresses it with such simple acts as strapping on water wings as a storm approaches, or challenging her to an arm-wrestling contest and screaming, “Who’s the man?” to which she yells, “I’m the man!”

We Chesapeake Bay folks may connect most with a crab feast scene, where Wink tells Hushpuppy to skip the traditional way of picking a crab and eat it like a beast. With the entire room chanting “beast it,” she rips the crab in half, sucks out the insides, and stands on the table, fists clenched and roaring.

She is the beast of the southern wild.

Wallis’ tour-de-force performance should go down among the great child performances in history, from Elizabeth Taylor in “National Velvet” (1944) to Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense” (1999).

I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s nominated for an Oscar, but unlike Anna Paquin’s Best Supporting Actress win for “The Piano” (1993), Wallis will be competing for Best Actress. If the Academy gives the statue to a 6-year-old over its older leading ladies, I’d be pleasantly and beautifully shocked.

“She was so focused and poised and just was fierce,” director Benh Zeitlin tells IMDB. “She wouldn’t do just what I told her to do. She questioned what I was saying. She’d say, ‘I don’t like this word,’ and she’d delete it. I allowed her to own the words and understand what they meant.”

The film is Zeitlin’s feature-length debut, receiving support from the Sundance Labs and the NHK International Filmmakers Award. His vision is gritty and hand- held with high exposure, the work of cinematographer Ben Richardson, who won the Cinematography Award at Sundance. The film’s childlike wonder may feel as real as it does because Zeitlin met his co-writer Lucy Alibar in a summer camp as teenagers. He also knows a thing or two about overcoming adversity, having suffered a shattered hip and dislocated pelvis in a car accident on the way to the South by Southwest in 2008.

Shot on actual post-Katrina locations with non-actors, “Beasts” follows the Italian Neorealist approach of shooting in real places and casting real people without Hollywood glitz, glamor and effects. Hushpuppy and her father might as well have been the father and son in “Bicycle Thieves” (1948), two non-actors giving incredibly real performances. What a treat to nail both ends of the film spectrum in back to back weeks, last week seeing Hollywood popcorn moviemaking at its best with “The Dark Knight Rises,” and this week seeing gritty independent filmmaking at its finest in “Beasts.”

Both will undoubtedly be on many “Best of 2012” lists at the end of the year. Like “The Artist” last year, “Beasts” is still waiting to get its full, nationwide release, but you can catch it at a handful of local theaters. In Maryland, head to the Landmark Bethesda Row in Bethesda or the AFI Silver in Silver Spring. In Virginia, head to the AMC Lowes Shirlington 7 in Arlington. And in D.C., head to the Landmark E Street Cinema near Metro Center. Despite its young central performance, the film is PG-13 for some strong language and “life and death” scenarios. My advice would be to see it once yourself before taking the kids. If you think they can handle it, glue their butts to the seats.

Tightly constructed with a bit of magic in each scene, the 1 1/2 hour runtime will fly by. I lost myself in it, and by the end, I was wiping my eyes as Hushpuppy said, “Don’t cry,” with a single tear down her own cheek. As the music swelled and the end credits hit, I recalled Hushpuppy’s words, spoken with the allegorical weight of Linda Manz in “Days of Heaven” (1978): “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece… the whole universe will get busted.” I feel the same way about this film. If one piece busted, even the smallest piece, the entire whole may not have worked. Thankfully, everything in the film’s universe fits together just right.

★ ★ ★ ★

The above rating is based on a 4-star scale. Read more from WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley by clicking “Fraley on Film” under the “Living” tab above, following @JasonFraleyWTOP on Twitter, and checking out his blog, The Film Spectrum.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)