Let me start by saying that this post is not intentionally goading. And, the title is not meant to piss folks off. But, honestly, all the swooning and fawning over Quvenzhané Wallis and her performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) left me really excited with the prospect of seeing her break-out debut. So, I immediately added the film to my Netflix queue and eagerly awaited its arrival. This weekend, I decided to go ahead and watch it with my mom and husband (who is a budding fiction writer). It started off pretty gritty. I was waiting for all the gorgeous shots and beautifully situated lighting that everyone had been talking about. But, it never happened. Truthfully, within the first fifteen minutes, we were not only lost but we were distracted, confused, and disillusioned. Those feelings continued for the remainder of the movie. And, sadly, they still remain. So, please explain, why are we swooning over Beasts of the Southern Wild?
Yes, it is nominated for four Academy Awards. And, that is all well and good. But, where was all the greatness that I was supposed to experience? Miss Jamila Akil did a full review so I will not go down that road here. But, there were a couple of thematic choices the director made which left me questioning the intentions of the film.First, the most obvious feature of this movie is poverty. And, when I say poverty, I mean like devastatingly-disgusting-to-the-point-of-gagging-in-your-mouth poverty. “Hushpuppy,” played by now Oscar nominated Willis, basically spends the entire movie with no electricity, no running water, no soap, no toothbrush, no pants, and no, well, you get the point. She doesn’t have much of anything…at all. She lives on dead animal carcasses and burnt cat food. And, her mildly abusive relationship with her father, “Wink”, is jarring to say the least. My question is simple, why in the world is THIS the role for a young black girl that gets soaring reviews? With all the blow back Quentin Tarantino got for Django Unchained, one would think that folks would be all up in arms about white folks telling this story. And, yet, nothing but praises.
Second, young actresses like Jurnee Smollett and Keke Palmer have graced the silver screen in movies like Eve’s Bayou (1997) and Akeelah and the Bee (2006), respectively, yet neither has gotten nearly the level of acclaim that Wallis received in her debut performance. Yes, Wallis is nine years old. And, when filming the movie, she was much younger. This definitely proves that she is a talent to be reckoned with. But, did anyone else notice that about 90% of her on-screen acting was internal narrative? In other words, she was the narrator and the protagonist in the film. She told the story in first person voice with little spoken words on camera.
I am not sure why the film’s director, Benh Zeitlin, chose this method to tell Hush Puppy’s story. But because of that choice, it is hard to see how this adapted screen play rivaled Smollett’s performance in The Great Debaters (2007) or Eve’s Bayou. Actually, I am certain it paled in comparison. Perhaps I am being harsh. Let me be clear, I think Wallis did a great job. But, I just struggled throughout the movie trying to ascertain what exactly Wallis brought to the film that was worth the sheer magnitude of accolades the she received. When comparing her to previous little brown girls and to currently nominated actresses like Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Lawrence, and Naomi Watts, I am just really not getting it.
Finally, the film’s experimentation with issues of race and class really didn’t come off, to me, as…authentic. They wreaked of disconnected infatuation and wonderment with the poor “beasts” of the poverty stricken Mississippi Delta. The indulgence of the film came off as totally smitten with poor people as opposed to honestly seeking to tell their story. Maybe I read too far into it. But, about midway through the movie, I literally asked my husband, “What am I watching?” Because the moments of authenticity were sandwiched between the fantastic belligerence of an out of touch student filmmaker. Now, I am no snooty film critic. I am just a brown chick who likes movies. I have never been the kind of poor this movie deals with but I have been poor. And, I really could not feel the emotion that the movie was attempting to provoke by telling this story. When I was supposed to feel camaraderie I felt pity. When I was supposed to sense a homeliness I saw abandonment. And, when I was supposed to feel triumphant I felt confused. It just wasn’t complete.
So, why exactly are we swooning over this movie? Is it simply because Wallis is adorable? She really is. But, I contend, it could not possibly be because the movie itself was so engrossing and enveloping. Did you see the movie? Or, are you somewhere sipping the Kool-aid like I was?
What I will say is this: don’t believe the hype. See it for yourself. You may just be surprised at your own reaction.