Directed by: Benh Zeitlin.
Written by: Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin.
Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis (Hushpuppy), Dwight Henry (Wink), Levy Easterly (Jean Battiste), Lowell Landes (Walrus), Pamela Harper (Little Jo), Gina Montana (Miss Bathsheeba), Amber Henry (LZA), Jonshel Alexander (Joy Strong).
Beasts of the Southern Wild has already become one of the most talked about films of the year since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s one of those rare Sundance films that proves the festival, which usually trades in the same old dysfunctional family comedy-dramas, can still produce some great films. Co-written and directed by Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild is the type of film that sneaks up on you – gradually building its emotional impact until its devastating climax. It is a film about childhood, told from the point of view of a child and not seen through the lens of an adult looking backwards. As a film about what it’s like to be a child, Beasts of the Southern Wild is great.
A lot of the credit for the success of the film belongs to the wonderful Quvenzhane Wallis, who was five when the film was made, and delivers one of the best performances by a child actor ever – and one of the best performances of the year by anyone. She stars as Hushpuppy, a child living with her father in what they call the Bathtub – a place off the shore of New Orleans, cut off from the mainland by levees, and forgotten by pretty much everyone. The residents of the bathtub are all dirt poor – to say they live in shacks would be an insult to shacks. Hushpuppy lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry), who is trying to raise Hushpuppy as well as he can, but it must be said he’s not a very good father. He loves Hushpuppy, but he’s also a drunk, may have some sort of mental illness, and has a tendency to disappear for days at a time – during these periods, Hushpuppy has to take care of herself. When Wink is around, he is prone to fits of anger and violence. And yet Hushpuppy loves him – and he loves her. They are all each other have. Wink has told Hushpuppy that when her mother first saw her, she was so beautiful that she couldn’t take it – and so she just “swam away”. Hushpuppy still thinks that one day she’ll just swim back.
One day a storm hits – it may be Katrina, it may not be – and leaves the entire Bathtub under water. The surviving residents pile into ramshackle “boats”, made up of old cars and other makeshift items. They try to hatch a plan to save the Bathtub – but soon the government, seemingly for the first time caring about these people, come and force them to leave, putting them in shelters they don’t want to be in.
The entire movie is told from the point of view of Hushpuppy. She often narrates the film in a hushed voice – leading some to compare the films to the work of Terrence Malick who also likes this type of voiceover. It’s clear from the beginning of the movie that what we are being told is not the objective truth – but the truth as seen by Hushpuppy – through her innocent eyes. She doesn’t see anything wrong with living in the Bathtub – to her it’s the most beautiful place in the world. After all, it’s all she has ever known, so why would she feel it’s at all strange? To her, it is the Bathtub that is normal, and the Shelter she is shipped off to that feels strange and alien to her. And Quvenzhané Wallis never hits a false note during the course of the film – she in fact carries the film. She has been described in several reviews as a “force of nature”, and that’s as good as a description as I can up with. She is natural in her every scene. Dwight Henry is equally good as her father – which is all the more amazing when you find out that he is a baker in real life, and has no real desire to act. Zeitlin is said to have taken an approach similar to Mike Leigh when making this film – working with the actor themselves to develop their characters. And the result is a movie full of interesting people, who feel fully lived in.
The film is also a great technical achievement. The cinematography has a strange beauty about it – even when much of it is handheld, which I often find distracting, but here quite simply works. The score is memorable, and although it perhaps is a little too heavy handed at times, for the most part it works beautifully. For a movie shot on such a small budget, the special effects are also quite good – Hushpuppy imagines a group of mythical “aurocks” stalking them on their journey. Bu t the biggest technical achievement is the art direction – from the ramshackle sheds, to the weird boats, the film is full of memorable, one of a kind creations.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of those films that seemingly comes from nowhere. It is by a first time filmmaker who has the confidence and skill of a veteran, stars a group of unknown, non-professional actors. And it is also one of the best films of the year so far.