Only six years old at the time of filming, Quvenzhane Wallis positively explodes onto the scene in her debut role as the star of “The Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
Wallis plays “Hushpuppy,” a little girl who lives in a fictional island community called the Bathtub, on the outskirts of New Orleans with her alcoholic father, “Wink.” In the Bathtub, rising waters, and the constant threat of storm destruction, are ignored in favor of a tradition of good food, good drink and a good time.
Both Wallis and Dwight Henry, who plays Wink, are natives of the Bayou area, along with numerous others involved in both cast and crew.
As Henry said in an interview with the San Diego Reader, “I was in Hurricane Katrina in neck-high water. I have an inside understanding for what this movie is about. An outsider couldn’t have brought the passion to the role that I did.”
The film clearly resonates with love for both the New Orleans area and the people who live on the fringe of its larger community.
With the look and feel of a home video, this film has great effects. It lends the scenes an intensely personal feel and gives the viewer a strong connection to the characters.
Indeed, when government authorities show up in the Bathtub to forcibly remove Hushpuppy and her father after a strong storm floods the area, you not only understand when they resist being taken, but you root for them as they try to escape back to their destroyed home.
However, this vivid realism is countered by a sense of magic which infuses the story from start to finish.
For instance, Hushpuppy’s imagination populates her home with monstrous aurochs, which are prehistoric creatures. They show up because, in her mind, the flooding is connected to the melting of polar ice caps that brought these preserved creatures to the Bathtub.
This magical realism is so strong that “Beasts of the Wild” comes off as just a touch shy of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel.
The blending of the real and surreal works startlingly well together as a way of showing the perception of a little girl who is young enough to believe in the fantastic, but has been forced to reckon with entirely too adult situations.
It is this fragile balance which makes Hushpuppy so captivating. We see her both invincible as she stares down an auroch the size of an elephant, and heartbreakingly vulnerable when she sets out into the ocean to look for her mother, who Wink says “swam away” when Katrina hit.
This is a balancing act even highly experienced and older actresses would struggle immensely with. Yet it appears easy to the six-year-old, first-time actress.
In fact, early Oscar buzz is already attracting talk of a nomination for Wallis for Best Actress. Currently eight years old, Wallis would smash the record for youngest Best Actress nominee — it is held for now by Keisha Castle-Hughes, who was 13 when nominated for her role in “The Whale Rider.”
With its win of the prestigious Camera d’Or at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival and the Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic) at the Sundance Film Festival, there is also much discussion of nominations for Best Picture, Best Director for first-timer Benh Zeitlin and Best Adapted Screenplay for Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar.
Given the strength of this film, it would not be undeserved for it to sweep its categories.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is playing at the Lyric Theater through September 13.