Beasts of the Southern Wild
Swampy survival tale serves up a gumbo of the real and the fantastical
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Directed by Benh Zeitlin
Cast: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly
Riding high on a wave of film fest bonhomie (it snagged the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and four awards at this years’ Cannes), Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of those wildly creative, fiercely independent, proudly idiosyncratic films that will be regarded as little more than a curiosity in the harsh light of the American cineplex. That’s a shame, really.
Not that the film is without flaws. Not that it would be to the taste of every audience member, were they exposed to it. Empirically speaking, however, it’s one of the most vividly original films to hit theaters since Evan Glodell’s apocalyptically romantic revenge drama Bellflower (another film fest fave that, for better or worse, failed to show up on anybody’s radar). Adventurous audience members with a taste for the scrappy, the offbeat and the inventively thrifty will find themselves digging up an unpolished gem with this earthy indie.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is notable, firstly, for its star: 6-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more naturalistic performance at any age. Wallis plays our main character and narrator, the mud-streaked wild child Hushpuppy. Hushpuppy lives in a backwater bayou known as “The Bathtub” with her broken-down father, Wink (Dwight Henry, a real-life café owner in New Orleans’ Seventh Ward, who matches Ms. Wallis emotion for emotion). Beasts of the Southern Wild doesn’t go out of its way to provide much detailed information about its characters or its setting. In this case, that’s mostly a good thing. The sense of discovery here is great. But a few things must be laid out for the sake of review.
In time, viewers will work out that The Bathtub is a largely abandoned tract of Louisiana real estate. In this world, the polar ice caps are rapidly melting, leaving much of the Southern United States flooded. The coastline has receded, and the rest of our country is protected by a vast levee system, holding back the watery inevitable. But the people of The Bathtub, a hardscrabble mix of dirt-poor Cajuns and African-Americans, are intent on living off the remnants of their ancestral home. They refuse to be repatriated to dry land. Instead, they hide out in the swamps, avoiding government forces and praying that the waters don’t rise any more. Clearly informed by the events of 2005, this uniquely post-Katrina environmental disaster finds our disenfranchised community of minorities trying to cope as best they can with a brave new world.
The film concentrates almost exclusively on little Hushpuppy, who lives a largely unsupervised, Peter Pan-like life in a trailer home near her single, frequently drunk father. Deeply philosophical, Hushpuppy ruminates on nature, self, existence, family in a poetic-beyond-her-years voice-over. If little Quvenzhané weren’t up to the task, the film would collapse under its own weight. She bears up, though, giving a fierce performance. (She’ll be compared to Jodie Foster, Tatum O’Neal and Anna Paquin a lot as award season approaches.)
The film was clearly made under tremendous constraints. First-time director and co-writer Benh Zeitlin has created a grim, real-world fantasy on a sub-shoestring budget. The postapocalyptic setting works to the budget’s advantage, though, giving a Mad Max inventiveness to the survivors’ scavenged environment. An additional storyline about the revival of some long-dormant ice age creatures (which may or may not be metaphorical) stretches the film’s purse strings to their limit. But Zeitlin makes the most of his bargain-basement special effects.
If the introduction of prehistoric beasts isn’t enough to clue you in, it should be pointed out that it isn’t always easy to get a handle on what this film is trying to say from moment to moment. There seems, for example, to be a curious glorification of poverty going on here. Although it’s believable that people would have a deep connection to their homeland, there’s no real clear explanation as to why these characters are so adamant about staying outside the levee, contentedly wallowing in mud and starvation. It’s clear the land is vanishing, and life for these people will continue to get worse. On some level, of course, this is one big metaphor for flood-ravaged New Orleans. But Beasts of the Southern Wild doesn’t portray a world in need of rebuilding. It portrays a world that is fundamentally and irrevocably changed. The only forseeable future for these characters involves a full-on descent into Waterworld territory—and that’s not something anyone wants (not even Kevin Costner).
All dirty knees, impressionist imagery and Tree of Life-like symbolism, Beasts of the Southern Wild plays out like a fairy tale set in an abandoned junkyard. Not all of the scattershot symbolism hits the target. Not every scrap of the poetry (both visual and aural) escapes pretension. Parts of the moral get lost in the muck somewhere along the way. But it’s still one of the freshest, most emotional, most artistically ambitious films you’ll see this year—a humic paean to mud and detritus, to life and death, to looming storm clouds and the fantastic resiliency of childhood.