[Lighting up the festival circuit since its debut at Sundance in January, Benh Zeitlin’s Beats of the Southern Wild played before an appreciative Los Angeles Film Festival audience Friday night. It opens theatrically on June 27th.]

An invigorating, homespun American fairytale, Beasts of the Southern Wild is about perseverance in the face of calamity rooted in (but not exactly about) the series of natural and man-made hardships endured by the people of South Louisiana. Told from the perspective of a strong-willed 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy, it’s set in a fictional bayou community called “The Bathtub” which is beyond the protective levees and fills with water whenever a storm comes. Hushpuppy’s mother disappeared not long after she was born and her father, Wink, is a hard but loving man struggling to teach his daughter to be strong and independent and to survive on her own. Ailing with a heart condition, Wink knows that his already tenuous existence, and therefore that of Hushpuppy’s, could prove very short indeed.

Beasts of Southern Wild is haunted by a sense of looming catastrophe which manifests itself in the idea of great prehistoric beasts, the aurochs, being unleashed from their glacial prisons by the melting ice caps and charging their way inexorably toward The Bathtub. The distinction between whether these creatures are real or simply a part of Hushpuppy’s abundant imagination is never made clear and that’s part of what gives Beasts its remarkable fairytale quality. Spun together from swirling fragments of perception, the story is hazy, impressionistic and at times fantastical – like a dream recounted by a child.

The two driving forces behind the film’s success are the twin performances by first-time actors Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry as Hushpuppy and Wink. Henry has a naturalness in front of the camera you’d expect from a seasoned professional, but a human edge untainted by stagecraft. Wallis, who turns 9 in August and originally auditioned for the film at 5 is amazing to behold. Bright-eyed, wild-haired, brave and fiercely stubborn, her Hushpuppy may be small, but she’s a force of nature who need only learn that she too is a part of the same universe that seems to be working to annihilate her. These are powerful, exciting performances. Securely affixed to the firmament of human truth, they are a testament not only to the terrific casting, but also the direction of Benh Zeitlin who managed to tease them out in this, his first feature film.

Zeitlin not only directed and wrote Beasts of the Southern Wild, he co-composed the wonderful score along with Dan Romer. Rooted in traditional American forms, the music sets the tone while complementing the action and emotion without ever over-asserting itself. The cinematography by Ben Richardson is also remarkable. At first glance, it’s beautiful, but it somehow also threads a needle between the intimacy and immediacy of handheld camerawork and the more stately majesty of much more expensive productions.

This type of swing-for-the-fences, chancy filmmaking can either fall on its face or it can arouse an audience with the pure possibility of cinematic vision and Beasts of the Southern Wild definitely pulls off the latter. While its scope touches on an entire way of life confronting its extinction, the story is also rooted in the primal human drama of a child and a parent having to let go of one another. That’s something we can all identify with and stories like these are why we love movies.

11 Responses to “LAFF: The Sundance award-winning debut “Beasts of the Southern Wild””

  1. Thanks for the complimentary review, Craig. This one is on my radar.

  2. I completely agree. I got to see this at the Little Rock Film Festival earlier in the month, on the heels of its win at Cannes. It’s not the most accessible film in some ways–there were plenty of “What the hell did I just see?”” comments murmured by the audience afterward, people who were thrown off by its setting and magical realist touches–but I found it absolutely refreshing and mesmerizing. The term “creative authenticity” comes to mind. It’s grounded by the relentlessly compelling performances, the physical setting, and the hardscrabble materials of the production design, but it’s propelled by pure poetry and dream, and the magic happens somewhere in the interplay of those two poles. I don’t know. I loved it, and want to see it again to let it all wash over me a second time.

    We had an interesting Q&A with one of the producers afterwards. Apparently the script changed dramatically after they found their leads, to the point it bears little resemblance to the finished film. That feels true; it feels like a story that emerged and formed itself into something beautiful and true rather than something precisely and cleverly constructed. “Swing-for-the-fences filmmaking” is dead right. This is the kind of film that makes me excited about indie films again. An unexpected creative joy.

  3. Another positive reaction — I just missed a special screening of this film on Friday but will for sure check it out when it opens.

  4. I agree, jennybee – creative authenticity is a good characterization. I think this film is fantastic. Whatever about it isn’t polished doesn’t matter at all because of its genuine nature. The way the fantastical elements connect to the narrative works very well for me. I anticipate the 2 stars, and others, will come up in conversation again when “bests” are discussed.

  5. Just now checked this out, and all I can say is WOW what a review!!!

    It’s one of your greatest, and it’s up there with Ebert and the heavies at the Wallis fansite!


  6. Thanks for pointing that out Sam! I know I wasn’t the first person to describe possible Oscar winner Wallis as a “force of nature” (I googled it after writing the review and was dismayed to see it had been used many times) but I certainly wasn’t the last.

  7. It just occurred to me that the unlikeliest of results could occur: Hushpuppy could win the Oscar. Stranger things have happened.

  8. Pierre– Too many people seem to be focusing on the conventional scenarios, but there is no question that vote-splitting could propel the perky Miss Wallis to the podium. It’s also a scenario that a number of voters may be hard-pressed to resist. The Best Actress race remains a humdinger, and you have raised a very conceivable possibility!

  9. I love it when the Oscars — or anything or anyone, for that matter — experience a shake-up. It’s good for the soul. Beasts of the Southern Wild clearly has enough passionate support (nominations for film, director, screenplay) to support such an outcome — unlike the last time a child was nominated in this category (Whale Rider). The Kodak Theater would go wild if this were to occur. I’d be just as pleased, though, to see Emmanuelle Riva win, in which case I predict she’d get a standing ovation — that is, if she bothers to show up….

  10. A lot of people were shocked and dismayed when Ben Affleck didn’t get a director nomination, but that meant that Benh Zeitlin and Michael Haneke DID get nominations so I’m ok with that. Happy to see Zeitlin represented in the directing category because I think Wallis’ performance has as much to do with him as it did her.

  11. Excellent point Craig. For me the unacceptable snub in the director category was Bigelow.

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