Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
Directed by Benh Zeilin
Oscar, don’t honor Quvenzhané Wallis with an acting nomination because she’s only 9 years old. Honor her because she deserves it. While “Beasts of the Southern Wild” hasn’t scooped up any major nominations this far into the award season, the directorial debut of Benh Zeilin wowed audiences at the Sundance Film Festival nearly a year ago. But will it wow you?
Living on “The Bathtub,” a small island immediately south of New Orleans’ levee, Hushpuppy (Wallis) survives by eating her pet chickens and sharing food with the dogs. Her father (Dwight Henry) drowns his sorrows in booze before the big storm hits their shack, but when he gets sick he has to put away the bottle and figure out how to care for his only child. All the while, Hushpuppy talks with the spirit of her dead mother and tries to expedite the maturing process and become a woman. She’ll need to.
Armed with a 9-year-old girl, a hometown (he’s a New Orleans import) filming location, and a 1.8 million dollar budget, Zeilin is able to work wonders. “Beasts” also has the benefit of one of the year’s best scripts, which was co-written with Zeilin by Lucy Alibar (whose stage play the story is adapted from). Heck, not everyone can say they’ve won the Screenwriting Award at the Nantucket Film Festival. Alibar can. Remarkably enough, the last big name to win that prize, “The Hurt Locker” writer Mark Boal, went on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Take that, million-to-one odds.
But these lines mean next to nothing if they don’t come from Wallis. It’s hard to compare her to anyone else; she’s 9 years old, after all. If Oscar rightfully offers her a nomination for Best Leading Actress, she’d be the youngest nominee in history by over four years. If she won, she’d be the youngest by over eleven years. She’s a firecracker ready to explode at any moment, but she also has control of her emotions. She shows real, raw sorrow when she talks to her sick dad, and childish freedom and carelessness when she’s with her friends. She’s got the goods.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is not the best movie of the year, nor do I see the real takeaway factor in it (I’m likely to forget much of it, excepting Wallis, by next week), but it does present a heartwarming story of a little girl coming to terms with her hectic life. And, frankly, that’s all I really expected. Here’s to hoping young Wallis’ future is a little brighter than Hushpuppy’s. Oscar, that’s your cue.