The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

December 14, 2012

Benji Tunnell: 'Beasts' worth watch, except on iTunes

By Benji Tunnell
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — I've talked before about vacuum of culture in Joplin, at least when it comes to movies. But this time of year, especially, I feel like we are the have-nots.

Awards season creeps closer, higher profile prestige pics are released, and we begin the long wait until late January or early February when our theater finally decides that the smaller films have received enough press to warrant a one- or two-week run. In the meantime, we are left to dig through Thanksgiving leftovers and whichever Gerard Butler film the studios have been foolish enough to greenlight.

Fortunately, this is also the time of year when we begin to see some of the independent films from the summer appear on Blu-ray, giving us something to hold us over until the end-of-year product finally makes its way to us. This is how I was finally able to catch up to "Beasts of the Southern Wild."

In fairness, Joplin Electric Theater showed this film on two different occasions, both of which I was unable to attend. So, I had to wait to rent the film through iTunes, which I imagine is quite a different experience.

Six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) lives with her hot-tempered father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in the bathtub, an impoverished but fiercely independent community on the bayou. As her father's health begins to fail, the bathtub is hit by a powerful storm, driving out all but its most stubborn residents and flooding the entire area.

Hushpuppy, her dad and the few remaining stragglers must fight to survive, as all they've known is washed away. As her father's health worsens, Hushpuppy goes on a quest to find her lost mother.

To be fair to the film, my viewing through iTunes was plagued with problems -- freezing every couple of minutes and then fast forwarding through much of the movie -- forcing me to try to pinpoint exactly where the movie left off before each glitch. But even with the frustrations of watching, I was able to be swept away by the power of the performances.

Henry is strong as a father dealing with an ever weakening body and failing under the weight of caring for his young daughter as he realizes that his time to be able to do so is coming to an end. As the storm comes, he clings to the home that he knows because it is the only certain thing in a life full of uncertainty.

Henry is excellent in portraying both the sadness of knowing that his time with his daughter will come to an end as well as the fear of what will become of her after he's gone.

But the true standout of the movie is Wallis. Too young to be self-conscious, Wallis is allowed to be natural on screen, and this uncoached feeling lends itself to her overall performance.

Much like Tatum O'Neal in "Paper Moon" and Anna Paquin in "The Piano," Wallis gives a portrayal informed more by her lack of experience than any external direction. Wallis carries the weight of the film as the narrator and lead character, and she does so with aplomb.

Hushpuppy is a quiet yet exceptionally strong young girl, hardened by life and saddled with far more responsibility than she should see at such a young age. Wallis does more with a look or a glare than many much older actors are able to pull off with five-minute speeches.

Equally strong is her narration, which propels the story and puts you in the mindset of the little girl. I'm not a big fan of showering awards on actors who are so young that they have yet to learn the craft, but this performance is so unpretentious and professionally delivered that I would have a hard time arguing against such recognition.

The full impact of the movie, as well as a lot of the symbolism, was lost on me as I was dealing with my frustrating viewing experience, but the power of the performances cannot be denied. I suppose it's my punishment for not being able to support such a film when it is shown in Joplin, and I deserve that.

I will revisit the movie on Blu-ray to feel the full impact, and I look forward to seeing what is hidden within as the layers continue to peel back.