Every Oscar season needs a pulse of emotion that feels less put-on, that doesn’t have that whiff of campaign or construct. Something that organically pops from the fabric of the form can be galvanizing, and though nothing can exist so pure for too long, the recognition of a tempest in the calm before it strikes means something.
Quvenzhané Wallis is that tempest for 2012. And though we’ve been intimating as much since the film bowed at Sundance, it bears repeating: get ready to hear a lot more about this 8-year-old natural.
Wallis was five when director Benh Zeitlin went searching through over 4,000 young ladies for the lead role of Hushpuppy in his festival sensation “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” She was six when she delivered the performance in the film, one that is likely to be a formidable contender on the awards circuit this season, a road that could well end with her nabbing the record for the youngest Best Actress nominee in history.
“Beasts” went from Sundance to Cannes and kept a headwind going strong into tonight’s Los Angeles premiere as a featured player of the Los Angeles Film Festival. And with more reactions pouring in, it’s safe to say the film is striking an overwhelming note of blanket approval.
Speaking to Zeitlin earlier this week (full interview to come), the director noted Wallis’s inherent sense of right and wrong as well as a quietness that spoke to him and forced him to draw the previously quite talkative character inward on the page. There is a majesty with which Wallis holds the viewer’s attention, even in passive moments, a nebulous aura at once arresting and alluring.
As a folk hero, Hushpuppy takes on an archetypal quality, but one nevertheless singular. She is a ball of innocence, hope, wonder and breathless life, but something wiser struggles beneath the surface. Wallis — with careful and noteworthy guidance from Zeitlin — gives an energy to the character that makes it feel like a spark plug for the overall production.
Indeed, cinematographer Ben Richardson (full review also coming) talked about Wallis as a muse, the camera tethered to her performance in ways that made him think of the photography less in terms of handheld than as an extension of what she was conveying. The obligation, he said, was to documenting the palpable power she was generating on the set and ensuring that it came across.
The folks at Fox Searchlight have something special on their hands and they know it. No one wants to jinx it over there, but the fact is this: few if any actresses will give a more compelling performance than Quvenzhané Wallis in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” this year.
I’m still working from memory here as I haven’t caught the film since January, but it has stuck with me. Seeing fleeting images on trailers or catching a bar or two of its triumphant score stirs something in me still. It’s an experience, and that puts it ahead of the curve right out of the gate. As it marches head first into an awards season that will surely produce more of the usual, “Beasts” and Wallis’s work therein is anything but.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” opens in select theaters on Wednesday, June 27.