Beasts of the Southern Wild
Directed by: Benh Zeitin
Written by: Benh Zeitlin & Lucy Alibar
Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly and Lowell Landes
Let’s get this out of the way early: Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of the best films in recent years, and it is one of the greatest encapsulations of childhood consciousness that I’ve ever seen on a screen. It captures a specific American subculture in the Louisiana bayou so effortlessly that its moments of fantasy should feel out of place, but because it is filtered through the eyes of such a poignant and ferocious young girl, everything flows together wonderfully.
That child is Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), the daughter of a sick, widowed father (Dwight Henry) who conjures up visions of gigantic beasts from folk lore to explain the destruction of her home and family. She howls for her mother and glares at her dad when he yells at her, a wild thing in the vein of Max.
Benh Zeitlin is the director of this amazing film, and with one feature has established himself as one of the finest new talents directing today. From the joyous opening festival to an ending that is equal parts hopeful and melancholic, his weaving, unstoppable camera captures Hushpuppy’s world with amazing narrative economy.
Filtering gigantic philosophical concepts through the eyes of a child is a technique that Terrence Malick employed in last year’s Tree of Life. Zeitlin, however, does not take the point of view of a creator. He is right along Hushpuppy and her father, and the beasts of the title are manifestations of how she perceives the natural disasters rampaging through her bayou home. It recalls Where the Wild Things Are more so than Tree of Life, but its narrative is not nearly as abstract as either of those movies. Hushpuppy learns of the melting ice caps in school as well as the legend of the large beasts, and she combines them into one story in her head.
When she sees the flooding begin, Zeitlin cuts to footage of glaciers fragmenting, and then shows a beast frozen inside one, though not for long. Associating the beasts with global warming allows for Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar to slip commentary into their script without becoming overly didactic.
Global warming is not the main issue tackled in the movie, but rather the attempt to tame a group and forcefully induct them into the American way. That it is set in Louisiana and was made post-Katrina makes it even more poignant. Hushpuppy’s father, known only as Wink, is as mistrusting of outside forces as they are of him. When they come through and tell him to evacuate, he takes his daughter to hide and then throws broken objects from their dilapidated shed at them.
Of course, evacuation is not an option, and they are taken to civilization for shelter. The image of Hushpuppy’s frizzy hair tamed and primped is made hauntingly effective by adding a turquoise dress while Zeitlin frames her sullen face alone in a crowd of other young girls as an official yells at her for being difficult. Quvenzhané Wallis gives one of the greatest childhood performances in this role, though if trends continue she’ll either be totally overlooked (Pan’s Labyrinth) or given a “supporting” nod (True Grit).
Zeitlin’s movie was not made to be lauded by such an industry function as the Oscars, though. Beasts of the Southern Wild is surely destined to be a film festival darling, especially since its conquest at Sundance and the loud roars it was greeted with at the screening I attended at Cannes. It is a movie to discover and then spread word-of-mouth like wildfire; though if you don’t see it, it’s no one’s loss but your own.