Gimme Some Oven

{new on dvd} Beasts of the Southern Wild

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When one tries to learn how to write screenplays, one hears this bit of wisdom over and over again: Don’t write voice-over narration. Just don’t.

It’s generally good advice. Using a narrator can be a shortcut to avoid the hard work of figuring out how to show your story visually. Voice-over can get tedious fast. It can sound stilted. Just don’t.

But rules are made to be broken, and in the hands of a talented storyteller, voice-over can be used as effectively as any other tale-spinning tool. It’s kind of like a really sharp knife. Great chef + really sharp knife = excellent dinner. Newbie chef + really sharp knife = Emergency-room disaster.

In the case of Beasts of the Southern Wild, director Benh Zeitlin and his co-screenwriter Lucy Alibar wield that really sharp knife with razor skill. The film follows a 6-year-old girl, Hushpuppy, and her struggle to survive in The Bathtub, an exile community built outside the levee in a Southern bayou. We hear Hushpuppy’s inner monologue throughout the film. Here’s why I think it works:

1. The voice over does more than narrate the action we’re already seeing on screen.

Sometimes Hushpuppy is telling us something she learned, from some undesignated point in the future. Sometimes she’s explaining her view of the universe. The visuals are telling us something different, either showing us more of Hushpuppy’s world or advancing the plot. The information we’re getting from the visuals and voice over is layered, not repeated.

2. The voice over has a reason to be.

Hushpuppy is not a talkative child…outside her head. She doesn’t keep a journal or have a best friend to confide in. She’s wary of the world and not quick to speak in front of others. We need the voice over to know what she’s thinking.

3. The voice over is authentic and in the unique voice of the character.

Part of this comes from a really fantastic script. But Zeitlin has also said that he spent a lot of time explaining the story to his first-time child actor Quvenzhané Wallis (who’s getting Oscar buzz, out of the gate), and hearing her tell it back to him. He and Alibar built her personality and speaking style into the script, ensuring that even when Hushpuppy gets deep, the lines still sound like they are coming from a real person, not a detached voice: “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece…the whole universe will get busted.”

There’s a lot more that could be said about Beasts of the Southern Wildso I apologize for getting all script-geeky on you. There’s the way Zeitlin keeps his naturalistic camera deep in Hushpuppy’s environment, so we feel both the magic and the claustrophobia of The Bathtub…Except when it’s revealing the world of the aurochs, creatures that are very, very real to Hushpuppy. And those special-effect aurochs have a physicality that movies with budgets 100 times the film’s rumored $1.8 million cost struggle to conjure. There’s Wallis’s undeniable charisma and the intensity of first-time actor Dwight Henry, who plays Hushpuppy’s father, Wink.

Yes, there’s a whole lot to recommend in this film…did I mention the voice-over writing is fantastic?

gimme five

Good for: people who love triumphant stories with a strong sense of place

Invite your: friend you’d want to be exiled outside the levee with

Snack on: crawfish, gumbo or cajun chicken pasta

Bring your: makeshift raft and unquenchable spirit

Skip if: you have an aversion to voice over narration, no matter how well done

Do you have any favorite films that use voice-over narration well?

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Sarah Magill

Sarah Magill has a full-time movie habit made possible by a day-time greeting card writing gig. She blogs at Gimme Some Film and is learning to write scripts and direct. She tries to balance her screen obsession with trail running, jazz singing, book clubbing, and hanging out with The Best Golden Retriever Ever, Copa.

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14 comments on “{new on dvd} Beasts of the Southern Wild”

  1. I forgot about this one. Would like to see it.

    Your comparison of VO to a sharp knife is awesome.

  2. I feel like I comment about this movie in every post (and no, it’s not a hint that I want you to blog about it, just the consequence of it being one of my top faves), but A River Runs Through It uses voice over well. Probably because it’s based on a book. Do you think movies based on books–especially historical narratives or creative non-fiction style books–are more likely to use voice over? In this film at least, I think it sets the stage for…like you said…what the characters are thinking, but something that one wouldn’t naturally say out loud (for example, an observation of nature).

    Looking forward to seeing this one too!

    • I think book adaptation are probably more likely to lean toward voice over…but it’s not always the best solution. I think sometimes book adaptors use it as a crutch to not have to figure out how to best tell the story in a new medium. But, like I said, done well, it works. We really need to have that River Runs Through It re-watch party soon!

    • ooh, invite me to that party! :)

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed this one, except that it did make me motion sick. But the narration allowed me to close my eyes and still follow the story.

    • Ha! I didn’t think of narration as being a back-up for hand-held-camera-sickness! Glad it helped you still enjoy the film.

  4. I haven’t yet seen this – but look forward to doing so. This post helps me not write off spoken-narration entirely and encourages me that if I need it in my script, it might be the right thing. Thanks!

  5. One part of this is that Benh Zeitlin got really lucky with his lead actress. She is very appealing and with another child the film would not have worked. He and Lucy Alibar also seemed to understand how to make the script about a child without making it about a child actor. One thing I’m most looking forward to about awards season is the deluge of Quvenzhané Wallis press as she gets back out there to promote this film…which she’s basically been doing for half her life now. She gives a great interview.

    • Those Quvenzhane Wallis interviews have been golden! Can’t wait for more, too. I think Zeitlin and Alibar were really smart to 1) find a great first-time actress, like you said, then 2) set her up for success by doing so much prep work and adapting the script to her and her other first-time co-stars. It’s an intriguing way of making sure a film feels authentic!