Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
Beasts of the Southern Wild is arguably the most successful independent film from 2012. It is about 5-year old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) who lives with her brute father (Dwight Henry) in a self-sufficient and subsisting community in one of the southernmost Louisiana bayous (called "the Bathtub") in the days leading up to and following a massive storm which threatens to wipe out their entire community. While the authorities have built a levee to cut them off, and are trying to persuade them to leave and flock up in government shelters, the people in the Bathtub are fighting for their homes and their lifestyle with pride and self-respect. They are poor and uneducated (some would even say uncivilized), but they refuse to be sat upon. And little Hushpuppy duly adopts her father's pride and toughness, while at the same time dreaming of meeting her mother again.
One of the best aspects of Beasts of the Southern Wild, and in my opinion what really makes the film, is that it avoids becoming an elegy about race, politics or money, but instead focuses on a simple and beautiful message of self-worth, family pride and the right every human has to live their lives according to their beliefs. In this latter sense, the film is a proponent for nonconformity, celebrating diversity in all aspects of life. One of the reasons this works so well and doesn't fall flat as an uncritical, self-glorification on behalf of these characters, is the fact that they are not flawless - far from it. The father slaps, neglects and abuses his little daughter, but everything he does is either out of love for her or the best that he can. He is a highly flawed character, but in this situation very real and absolutely sympathetic, despite all this. The relationship between him and Hushpuppy is both the narrative and thematical focal point of the film, and the interplay between the brilliant Dwight Henry and the absolutely impressive Quvenzhané Wallis is the key to the film's powerful dramatic effect. Even more remarkable is the fact that neither had any prior acting experience.
The film also includes a fantastical element, which could have turned out either way. Luckily, it doesn't compromise the drama, but instead adds an extra element to it; or rather to our understanding of Hushpuppy, and to being a 5-year-old in general. Her visions and fantasy function as a means of escape for her; living in peril as she is, she's fascinated by these beasts that she believes to be something even more dangerous. In this respect, the film reminds me of Richard Donner's film Radio Flyer, which deals with some of the same aspects of a child's life as Beasts of the Southern Wild.
The production company behind Beasts of the Southern Wild is called Court 13, and this is their first feature. Shot on location on 16mm film, first-time director Benh Zeitlin reportedly didn't view dailies before shooting was wrapped, something which just makes his impeccable command over the narrative even more impressive. Sure, he is very aware of his story's dramatic potential, and uses it for what it's worth, but his well-balanced characters and aforementioned focus ensures he avoids turning the story into mush. This is clever and effective filmmaking - with a couple of extraordinary elements (notably Wallis) to top it off.