“When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me, flying around in invisible pieces. I see that I’m a little piece of a great big universe.”
It is not often you come across a film like Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, a dizzying and lyrical journey merging reality and fantasy in one incendiary fusion.
At a time when most pictures feel manufactured and coldly assembled, here’s one that doesn’t really seem ‘made’ at all. It bursts onto the scene fully formed, a wild, writhing, living thing, scarcely identifiable as the work of a first-time director. For film lovers burned out on empty spectacle and rehashed franchises, Beasts is a quiet and powerful wonder; an original movie with a heart and a soul.
The setting is a place called the Bathtub, a tiny impoverished community that seems to exist on the outskirts of New Orleans, cut-off from the mainland by levees and waiting for one great storm to come and wash it all away. This world is introduced to us by Beasts narrator, Hushpuppy, a six-year old girl living with her father Wink in rusted-out shacks and traveling the water in a busted pick-up bed converted into a motorboat. Although life is a constant struggle for the toiling class who live here, Hushpuppy sees the beauty within this microcosm as clearly as she sees/hears the thoughts of the fish and birds living in the wilderness around her.
Zeitlin paints the Bathtub in vibrating, chaotic life—his camera bouncing around the wet swamplands and cavorting parades—while also establishing it as a kind of shelter and comfort from the world outside. It’s the Island of Misfit Toys as imagined by Nora Zeale Hurston, a multi-cultural miasma of folksy gusto and survivor ethos. When Hushpuppy learns to break a crab open with her bare hands, spilling the meat onto the table, the rest of her make-shift family scream ‘Beast It!’ in cheerful unison. In lesser hands they might have been reduced to caricatures or low-class stereotypes, but Zeitlin and screenwriter Lucy Alibar (from her book ‘Juicy and Delicious’) imagine this culture and its rhythms so completely that each person becomes a flawed, real and beautiful being. That most of them are played by non-professional actors who imbue their characters with honest, no-frills passion only enhances the salt-of-the-earth reality.
Moving fluidly with only a semblance of form and narrative, Beasts observes everything from the perspective of Hushpuppy, whose own moral understanding of the world also controls the stability of it. Her daddy, Wink, is a rough man, given to drink and suffering from an illness that has blackened his veins so they stand out starkly from his already dark skin; he describes it to Hushpuppy as ‘my blood is starting to eat itself’. Striving to impart to his daughter a survivor’s spirit, he sometimes pushes too hard, compensating with stories about a mother who ‘swam away’; a mother whose face she has only seen in the mirror of Wink’s words.
When Hushpuppy lashes out at him in anger, it triggers the first bolt of lightning streaking across the sky, which in turn summons an apocalyptic storm. In her own understanding of the myths she’s been told, even little things can cause the universe to ‘get busted.’ The storm floods the lowlands as expected, transforming the Bathtub into a damp, floating wasteland reminiscent of Waterworld. As Hushpuppy sees it, the danger is more widespread and the ice caps themselves have collapsed, leaving the world out of balance. We are introduced to this not as a global event, but a personal one envisioned in Hushpuppy’s mind. Her school teacher has told her of the aurochs, fearsome prehistoric beasts that once stalked the Neanderthals and are now roaming across the country, headed for the Bathtub. In turn, Hushpuppy looks to set things right and find her mother, while Wink and a few comrades set out to destroy the levees and free themselves of a watery prison.
In special effects that are grand for their low-tech wizardry and seamless in their illusion, we see the majestic aurochs stalking an America pulled from legend, tramping on until they finally stand in front of Hushpuppy, ushering something new into her innocent world. At the same time, those people buzzing in the Bathtub, struggling to pull themselves out of the mud and keep their heads above the pooling water, never feel anything less than immediate and concrete. There are stakes and consequences, joys and pains, and Zeitlin tells a fascinating story with great feeling.
I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a movie that looks exactly the way this one does. It feels both familiar and fresh, built from fragments we understand and recognize, but pieced together to form something brand new. There are four levels upon which this happens; the writing, the visuals, the score and the acting. In the writing, these people and their world have been carefully designed as part fable and part flesh, the descendents and inheritors of John Henry and Paul Bunyan. At the same time they remind us of the survivors of Hurricane Katrina, struggling bravely in the face of sudden oblivion while the rest of the world runs untouched.
On the visual level, Beasts is masterful. The intimate, sneaking gaze of the camera pushes us into the lives of Hushpuppy and Wink, in so tightly we could be living in their skin. The images are breathtaking in their detail and in the grand mythic way they evoke fantasies and dreams we vaguely remember. There’s something post-apocalyptic about the arks the Bathtub denizens assemble after the flood and the aurochs might have stampeded right out of a Maurice Sendak book. Contrast this against small scenes of cinematic poetry; a young girl running in the summer night, grasping burning fireworks in her bare hands, and an unspeakably lovely moment where Hushpuppy finds maternal warmth in a slow dance with a stranger she knows only from stories.
The score, by Dan Romer and Zeitlin, knits the many elements of Beasts together in the same way those invisible cords of solidarity hold together Hushpuppy’s universe. Haunting and somber, wild and lively, this soundscape behaves like its own character, rustling up rowdy Zydeco ditties and marrying them to wistful, dreamy dirges that again conjure an older, fiercer kind of storytelling. On its own its a striking collection of music; when conjoined with the film, pure magic.
Finally, there’s the acting, which is so good and so fitting for the material, that it is impossible to imagine the film even existing with other people in the roles. Quvenzhané Wallis is a revelation as Hushpuppy. She was only five when she was cast, and finished the role when she was seven. She was completely the right choice, possessing a natural and unquenchable spark of the curious and the impulsive. Whether her character is listening closely to the beating chambers of a bird’s heart, belching triumphantly or screaming furiously, she’s both believable and endearing. Part of it is a performance of being, but there’s acting there too. Hushpuppy must endure much more than Wallis has, and the little girl plays a great game of make-believe, using her own imaginative stores to furnish Hushpuppy’s reactions as things spiral out of her control.
The other powerhouse in the film, also proving completely necessary to the achievement, is Dwight Henry as Wink. Pulled from behind the counter of his pastry shop, Henry studied his lines early in the morning while preparing that day’s baked goods. Wink is initially a hard man to like, he’s neglectful, mostly drunk, and often harsh with Hushpuppy. Made more poignant, is the fact we see a once good man hiding inside, one that yearns to care and provide for his daughter and is intent upon making her life better than his if he can find a way. Henry brings that internal depth to Wink that is essential if we are ever to have compassion and care for him. Together, he and Wallis form a parent/child bond that looks so organic that you often need to remind yourself it is fiction, not a documentary, you are watching.
There’s much to be said for Beasts of the Southern Wild, and while I could no doubt think of some nitpicks and criticisms, there are none that took me out of the picture or slowed my enjoyment of it. Indeed, I was so swept away by Beasts that leaving it felt like a chore, breaking from its spell a difficult task. It may in fact end up being my favorite film of the year. For now, I look forward to returning to it on the big screen and rediscovering again this simple fact; there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub.
Read Roger Ebert’s review of the film Here.
For showtimes for Beasts of the Southern Wild go Here
Beasts of the Southern Wild opens in Baltimore today at The Charles Theater. Get showtimes.
Listen to an interview with sceenwriter Lucy Alibar over at the Maryland Film Festival’s blog site. They hosted a screening of the film back in June, which was open to Friends of the Festival. For info on becoming a MFF Friend of the Festival, go here.