A six-year-old girl lives on a small island called “The Bathtub” in Louisiana, where she lives in squalor with her dying, tough-love father until flooding drives them into their makeshift boat to find food and stable shelter. They band together with other survivors and try to avoid government agencies who want them to vacate “The Bathtub” and submit to medical treatment at shelters on the mainland.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a remarkable but challenging movie for me. The challenging part is how the film squares its very grounded, almost documentary approach to storytelling with a bizarre, childlike fantasy component that weaves through its runtime. In addition to the ‘real’ story I summarized above, there are also monsters called ‘aurochs’ that have been unleashed from the melting polar icecaps making their way to The Bathtub for some cataclysmic confrontation with the girl, her father, and their primitive subset of society. I know the aurochs are part of the source material, but the film is so good without this fantasy element, I’d just as soon not be taken out of the film’s urgency and immediacy for it.
The most incredible thing about this film is the fact that it was made with non-actors on location. Director Benh Zeitlin coaxes an Oscar-nominated performance out of six-year-old Quevenzhane Wallis, and an equally remarkable performance from her father, played by Dwight Henry, who in real life was the owner of a pastry shop across the street from the production team’s headquarters. There are no professional actors in the movie, and when you watch Beasts of the Southern Wild, you forget entirely that you’re watching a piece of fiction. Because it feels real. The performances, the sets, camerawork, everything — feel completely real. And it’s not something achieved by the slickest Hollywood mechanics or veterans of the industry, but by rogue filmmakers and non-professionals. That’s a rare filmmaking miracle worthy of study.
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Actress (Quvenzhané Wallis), Adapted Screenplay