Saturday, February 23, 2013

Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild

Quvenzhané Wallis became the youngest actress ever to be nominated for Best Actress thanks to her performance as Hushpuppy, a little girl who's forced to grow up by some tragic events in her life in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Quvenzhané was the surprise nomination of Oscar morning, upsetting Oscar-winning superstars Marion Cotillard and Helen Mirren. With hindsight, Emmanuelle's nomination seems to be obvious, but Wallis' spot is still very surprising. I feel that while she will most definitely be fifth, her nomination was an incredible achievement that will most definitely boost her career if she makes the right decisions. But I hope that before having a great career, Quvenzhané will have a very happy and satisfying childhood.

I am, however, a bit confused about Beasts of the Southern Wild. On the one hand, I was completely stunned and blown away by it. On the other hand, I'm a bit baffled by it and I'm not sure why I was so amazed. Anyway, this movie is unlike anything I saw last year (or in fact, any other year) and I'm glad that Benh Zeitlin received an Oscar nomination for his powerful, innovative and surprising directing, which was much better than Ben Affleck's average work (I never forget to point this out, sorry :P). I was also impressed by Dwight Henry's unusual and unaffected performance as Huspuppy's tough father whose layers are revealed surprisingly well by Henry who shows us little moments of vulnerability behind the tough guy act. His work is better than all of the Best Supporting Actor nominees this year (just saying).

Still, Beasts of the Southern Wild will be remember primarily because it marked the first big screen appearance of Quvenzhané Wallis, this startling presence who will hopefully light up the screen many times in the future. I'm neither too enthusiastic nor very sceptical about child performances as I believe that all performances should be treated equally with the same amount of praise and criticism. I personally don't mind if it took 1241 takes to make the kid as good as she is on the screen, because I see that she had all the power in herself to play such a complex role so wonderfully. And she has every quality to be the star of a movie: charisma, strong personality, beauty and above all, a shining talent.

At first sight, Hushpuppy seems to be a paper thin character that doesn't need the actress to do more than coasting on her own charisma, but you realise what a complex development she has over the course of the film and how conscious she has to be to show all the layers of the little girl. I'm actually quite shocked at how realised this performance was: I had a feeling that Quvenzhané perfectly understood her character and all the stages she was going through in her life. She starts out in perfect harmony with her own environment and feels that the private world of hers (and her daddy's) cannot be destroyed in any way only to find out that it's all consumed by the illness of her father. I don't know if it was Quvenzhané's own realisation of this tragedy that I saw on the screen or her character's, but how she communicated this to the audience was nothing short of breathtaking. Both Hushpuppy and Quvenzhané walk around with the confidence of an adult and only Hushpuppy loses that confidence occasionally .

Also, I was astonished by how comfortably Quvenzhané works with the cameraaaahs (I  miss 30 Rock), perfectly being of aware of how much is needed to be shown, while also toning down her own cuteness. Whenever we get funny scenes, it's more about the humor and the irony of the situation than how cute Wallis looks on the screen (the scene with Hushpuppy's cooking comes to mind).

However, the true highlight of the film is Hushpuppy's heartbreaking last scene with her father: not only do you see pain in her tears, but also the determination to manage on her own. I believe the most breathtaking achievement of Quvenzhané is that she was able to show this girl's development so effortlessly, adding to the wonderful atmosphere of the film. Although lot of that had to do with her personality, it doesn't take away anything from the overall effect.

But objectively, you have to curb your enthusiasm a bit because Quvenzhané still has a lot to learn about this craft. Although she has the talent and the confidence, you can see that she cannot shine from a technical point of view. Of course, you don't expect that from a 6-year-old, but as I said in the beginning, I have to compare her to four adult lead actresses who all perfectly realised their characters and gave them everything they could. While Quvenzhané works from her instincts just like Jennifer, this was a decision from Jennifer's part and served the purposes of the character and it gave her performance a natural, but professional feeling. However, you can see that Quvenzhané works with her instincts because she doesn't have other options. You find Quvenzhané brilliant if you consider this a child performance, but when you compare it to everybody else, it just doesn't have the weight and experience that all the others do. She affects, but that has more to do with how well she's working already.

This may not be a brilliant performance and probably Quvenzhané doesn't fully understand the technical part of acting yet, but I never felt her inexperience for a moment. On the contrary, she understands the character and makes her much more complex than I expected from her. Quvenzhané is much more conscious than most of the child actors that I've ever seen, never coasting on her charisma and always doing what's best for her character. She walks on the screen with lots of self-confidence and she has such a stunning personality that I'm certain that she will give beautiful, layered performances when she grows up and learns more about acting. However, not only is her work in Beasts of the Southern Wild a promising beginning, but also something that even great actresses can be proud of.

What do you think? (The conclusion comes later in the evening)


Louis Morgan said...

This is for my money the most overpraised performance of the year. Not that she is bad, she is good as child performances go certainly. I take issues with those who say she gave the best performance of the year and those who say she is such a "force of nature". So really I mostly do agree with your review, but I liked her less. I also thought the film was only okay as well, although Zeitlin's direction was the best part so I do not mind his nomination.

Henry I thought was good and better than Arkin, De Niro, and Jones but definitely not better than Hoffman or Waltz.

dinasztie said...

I should have added the SUPPORTING Best Supporting Actor nominees. :))

Anonymous said...

Loved her and she deserved her nomination but I do not vote her for a win. She was just a really good 6 year old character.

Sebbers said...

A stunning performance. I don't care about age, she had so many subtle moments, moments that took Hushpuppy to another level. The look in her eyes, her body language, it was all just unparallel to anything else this year. The final 2 scenes, the dance with her mother, and the "no crying" scene are tour de force scenes wtih some of the best acted moments of the past decade.

mrripley said...


Nic said...

I was quite blown away by her initially but upon a second viewing, I agree largely with what you say in your review :)

She had a few scenes that were very strong but at some parts I felt that she was just going through the motions as opposed to really acting them out.

Still, I agree that this is very impressive work for such a young actress but as compared to her fellow nominees, it does pale in comparison