How Did They Get a 6 Year Old to Do That in “Beasts of the Southern Wild”?

It fitting that Quvenzhané Wallis, the 9-year-old star of Beasts of the Southern Wild, is being touted as a likely Best Actress Oscar nominee, the youngest ever, in an Oscar season when 22-year-old Jennifer Lawrence is the frontrunner so far for her performance in Silver Linings Playbook. (For the record, she was just 7 when she finished filming Beasts.) Wallis’s Hushpuppy is Ree Dolly, the 17-year-old character Lawrence played in 2010’s Winter’s Bone, for which she earned her first Oscar nomination at age 20, 11 years younger and relocated from Appalachia to the Louisiana bayou.

Beasts also contains elements of Moonrise Kingdom (a story told mostly from a child’s point of view, a big storm as a major character) and The Tree of Life (a mix of grim reality and fantastical history and an alternately loving and stern father), with bits and pieces of Sounder, Adaptation and the story of Noah’s Ark thrown in, but somehow it remains a unique viewing experience.

Some might carp about its social shortcomings — stereotypical angry black dad, meteorological disaster as a conduit for cinematic sentimentality — but that’s kind of beside the point. Yes, Wink could be seen as a stereotypical angry black dad (one part James Evans, one part George Jefferson, no parts Cliff Huxtable — if you want to go there), but Beasts is not a film about race. The two main characters — Hushpuppy and Wink — easily could have been played by white actors, or Hispanic actors, or Asian actors, to similar emotional effect.

As for the idea that Beasts sentimentalizes poverty or the loss of one’s shelter to the elements, just because the movie doesn’t dwell on the dark side of life in the “Bathtub” doesn’t mean it presents the bayou slum as a place anyone would want to visit, much less live in. Beyond its setting, though, Beasts is a fairy tale, one that’s told through a little girl’s eyes. On a universal level, it’s a story about community. On a personal level, it’s about a motherless child (and that adjective — “motherless” — and not the things Hushpuppy sees and endures, pretty much defines the character) discovering the world and trying to make sense of it and come to terms with all the scary things in it. It’s more likely that a 6-year-old girl would see a tropical storm the way Hushpuppy sees it and not as the hook for a New York Times op-ed piece on race and poverty.

That’s not to say it’s a perfect movie. In fact, were it not for Wallis’s centerpiece performance, I, too, might have strained to give this non-political movie political context. Like Dwight Henry, who plays her onscreen dad, Wallis is a first-time actor, but she’s more of a natural than Henry, whose delivery sometimes sounds a little stilted. She’s a child-acting rarity: adorable and cute, although at times she’s seems to be trying to be the opposite. She doesn’t talk a lot in the movie — her thoughts are revealed mostly in voiceover — which could either be evidence of her shortcomings as an actress or her potential for greatness.

Maybe first-time feature director Benh Zeitlin used the voiceovers as insurance in case Wallis’s line readings came across as awkward or inauthentic. (They don’t.) But then, when Wallis doesn’t have the spoken word to fall back on, she has to convey Hushpuppy’s inner life with facial expressions and with silence — a feat she pulls off every bit as expertly as Oscar winner Jean Dujardin did in The Artist last year.

If Wallis were 10 or 15 years older, Lawrence’s Oscar-night competition would be even tougher than Hushpuppy is in Beasts of the Southern Wild.

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