[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.