A breathtaking debut film from director Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a spellbinding piece of work that brings something new and exciting to the screen. While the imagery and dreamlike quality of the film might recall something along the lines of Terence Malick (The Tree of Life), it’s unlikely that you’ve seen anything quite like this.
You might call it magic neorealism. Set against the harsh backdrop of a community living under near-impossible conditions in rural Louisiana, Beasts of the Southern Wild also materializes their hopes and dreams and fears in a way that would make Spielberg proud. While the setting should feel hopeless, the finished film is anything but: it’s a joyous celebration of life and our relationship with the natural world.
Front and center is young star Quvenzhané Wallis, who plays the film’s six-year-old protagonist, Hushpuppy. Strong-willed, independent, and combative in ways that greatly belie her young age, Hushpuppy is an unforgettable character and Wallis gives a memorable performance that is destined for year-end awards recognition.
Hushpuppy lives in the “Bathtub”, an island in the Louisiana bayou cut off from New Orleans by rising waters (and based on a real locale, Isle de Jean Charles). The lives of Hushpuppy, her authoritative father Wink (Dwight Henry) and other neighbors in the Bathtub (all played by a cast of non-professionals) are turned upside down when an intense storm ravages the area and leaves the village underwater. Most viewers will recall the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, but the events are actually based on other storms.
Influenced by folklore imparted to her by a neighbor, Hushpuppy imagines a race of mythological aurochs – giant wild boar-like creatures, not the ancestors of cattle – breaking free from the polar ice caps and slowly charging toward the Bathtub.
One of the major themes in the film is man’s relationship with nature. During a key moment, a neighbor tries to teach Hushpuppy how to delicately crack open a crayfish shell. “No!” shouts Wink as he tears it apart with his bare hands, “beast it!”
The characters in the film have a respect for the natural world uncommon in contemporary cinema; director Zeitlin films them on equal footing with the world that surrounds them, as if they were subjects in a nature documentary.
Poetic, magical, and thrilling, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a beautifully crafted film; the highly-accomplished finished product belies the inexperience of its filmmakers. Handheld, grainy 16mm cinematography by Ben Richardson perfectly captures the gritty locale; the memorable original soundtrack was composed by Dan Romer and the director.
Beasts of the Southern Wild has been a critic’s darling and festival favorite in 2012, and recipient of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and Camera d’Or (for best directorial debut) at Cannes. Still, there has been some backlash; some may find the film too slow or ‘arty’. But for those looking for something new and unique, Beasts is an eye-opening ride.