Days after she taught me how to pronounce it, I still find myself saying the child’s name, just to hear the singular exoticness of it:
The first time I saw the first name belonging to the youngest-ever Best Actress Oscar nominee in a review of the acclaimed film “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” it stopped me in my tracks. Quevenszhane’? Trying to break it down phonetically, I finally gave up in frustration, thinking, “Nah, too hard.” But I hate giving up on anything, so at a recent screening of “Beasts” sponsored by the Center for American Progress, I asked the name’s young owner—who was on a panel with “Beasts” director Ben Zeitlin and producer Dan Janvey—how I should say it. With a polite “Here we go again” look, the tiny star grabbed the microphone.
“Kwa,” she began, waiting for me to repeat it. I did. “Vahn. Zsa [as in Zsa Zsa Gabor]. Nay.”
Putting the sounds together, I said it aloud: “Quevenszhane’.” Hearing it, I found myself charmed by its musicality, and by the very uniqueness that had irked me. Because it’s just the kind of name an exceptional kid like this deserves.
Normal nine-year-olds don’t earn Oscar nods. Typical third graders don’t carry entire Best Picture-nominated films on their narrow shoulders. This little girl’s accomplishments are extraordinary–so I was surprised that with her hair pinned back and her hands clutching a plush-toy puppy purse, the child who at age five beat 600 other hopefuls for the role of “Beasts”’ resilient heroine looks like a regular kid. But no matter how often she mugged, giggled and rambled off I’m-just-a-tyke answers, it was impossible to forget that the youngest-ever Best Actress nominee was, well, special.
Sitting up straight in her chair in a black sequined dress and matching boots, Quevenszhane’ worked the room like a seasoned politician. Displaying not a hint of shyness, she waved and grinned at the adoring adults who’d packed theater, coyly posed for fans snapping cell-phone photos, and answered with enchanting authority each time moderator Michele Norris of NPR asked her a question. Clearly, she’d done this dozens of time—and enjoyed every minute of it.
She seemed vastly different from Hushpuppy, the destitute, swamp-dwelling waif whose spellbinding stillness and penetrating silences captivate filmgoers. As played by Quevenszhane’, Hushpuppy’s tough demeanor and determined mouth are at war with the terror that radiates from her as she contemplates her ailing father’s imminent death. It’s a performance nuanced enough to earn her a place among the ranks of previous African-American Best-Actress nominees Dorothy Dandridge, Diana Ross, Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll, Whoopi Goldberg, Angela Bassett, Halle Berry, Gabourey Sidibe and Viola Davis.
“Beasts,” too, is impressive. Like the flood-prone Louisiana bayou whose stubborn and joyful inhabits it celebrates, the film is both harsh and poetic, loving and brutal. Though its images are breathtaking and its depiction of an impoverished, rarely-seen community enlightening, I was confused by its blend of mythical fantasy and grim reality. So I asked its star to interpret its meaning.
Quevenszhane’ smiled. When the frustrated Hushpuppy hits her abusive father in his chest, she explained, his unconscious collapse to the earth makes her fear that she has broken something that “makes the universe fall apart.” Everything she does afterward is an attempt to put it back together again.
Suddenly, I got it. Much as she’d done with her perplexing moniker, Quevenszhane’ introduced me to the film’s hidden resonance. It hit me: Isn’t that what all kids do—make us see stuff in totally new ways? Is it possible this lovely child isn’t so unique?
A second later, I came to my senses. Nah, I told myself. This one’s special.
Just like her name.