Following his move to New Orleans in 2006, New York filmmaker Benh Zeitlin wanted to make a movie celebrating the tenacity of the people of Louisiana. With the help of local first time actors he’s created the award-winning Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Filmed on location in Louisiana, director Zeitlin’s debut feature was adapted from his co-writer’s (playwright Lucy Alibar) stage show Juicy And Delicious and is told from viewpoint of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a six-year-old girl who lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) in a bayou community known as The Bathtub.
The film introduces the audience to the Bathtub’s unconventional outsider society through narration and the sharply-focused perspective of a child, culminating in a stunning carnivalesque opening that celebrates life and freedom from convention.
Relentlessly curious and in constant loggerheads with her hot-tempered daddy, Wallis’ performance is fierce as the self-reliant child. Henry’s is equally commanding in his portrayal of the domineering single father determined to raise a capable and independent daughter.
Situated in Louisiana flood zone, the Bathtub is cut-off by the Levee, an ugly, huge manmade water defence, but, regardless of the serious risk of flooding, the odd-ball residents are determined not to be pushed from their land and their ramshackle homes.
When the unthinkable happens, the remaining inhabitants of the Bathtub are forced to re-evaluate their river home. Led by Wink, the residents refuse to accept the inevitable and take action by attacking the thing they believe has caused their misfortune.
The parallels with Hurricane Katrina’s catastrophic aftermath are obvious and the Bathtub represents the determined resistance of the people of New Orleans. The metaphor continues as the battle of wills also mirrors Wink’s and Hushpuppy’s fiery relationship.
After being confronted with her father’s condition, Hushpuppy is convinced her actions have made him sick. As Wink’s health deteriorates she also believes she’s broken the world and the rising water is due to the melting of the ice caps. According to the Bathtub’s schoolteacher, the ice had once trapped man’s only enemy, the prehistoric and extinct Aurochs, and this knowledge plays havoc on the six-year-old’s rampant imagination.
Zeitlin’s choice to use pot-bellied pigs with horns over CGI to show the ancient monsters appears somewhat amateurish, plus the extinction analogy is a little heavy handed, but these are minor issues.
The film’s dialogue and narration are used sparingly and the language is beautifully poetic (reminiscent of Terence Davies’ Of Time And The City) and amounts to a delightfully visual and magical love letter to the Southern Deltas.
Zeitlin has created a remarkable and virile human story with an astonishing attention to detail. Supported by an amazing cast of non-professional actors, Beasts of The Southern Wild thoroughly deserves the raft of awards it’s collected so far from Cannes and many other film festivals.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a powerful brute of a movie that looks at our connection to the earth and the dogged attempts of people to hold on to what is important against all the odds.
The film makes the global personal and is a heartfelt treatise on survival and progress however ugly that may look.