Beasts of the Southern Wild - Benh Zeitlin
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Director Benh Zeitlin is no veteran to the film industry. With only three short films to his name, he began production on his feature length debut, Beasts of the Southern Wild, with a tiny professional crew (composed mostly of his family and friends) and the raw talent of a few non-professional actors. The result is a shockingly powerful portrayal of life in the bayou. Seen through the eyes of a spirited and imaginative six-year-old girl as she faces the inevitable demise of her home, the film perfectly balances human drama and magic realism to create what may be one of the most promising and original directorial debuts in years.
The movie takes place in a crumbling yet lively society off the grid from the mainland of the American South. Light-heartedly dubbed “The Bathtub,” residents of this communal squalor see their home as “the prettiest place on earth” and stubbornly ignore the threat posed by the government enforced levee surrounding their community. Soon, a storm floods and destroys their home, and those who remain are left to rebuild their lives in what is essentially a floating junkyard.
In the middle of all this is six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her hot-tempered, alcoholic father, Wink (Dwight Henry). Wink allows his daughter to roam freely among the animals in their dwelling as well as with the other residents of the Bathtub. Though his version of tough love is at times painful to witness — especially when he strikes, verbally abuses, and neglects Hushpuppy — it soon becomes clear why he pushes her to do things that may seem crude and dangerous to the audience.
Wink is found to be terminally ill. He urgently tries to instill survival skills and grit in his daughter before he leaves her alone, and through this we see the undeniable tenderness and fatherly love for Hushpuppy. When she finally comes to learn of her father’s sickness, her fantasy world comes alive: nature goes out of whack, the ice caps melt, and a herd of prehistoric creatures are unleashed.
It is in this balance between Hushpuppy’s childish fantasies and the harsh realities of her circumstances that the film shows its true strength. Zeitlin’s framing of the human drama with elements of fantasy allows the audience to see things from Hushpuppy’s point of view, and in doing so the Bathtub becomes an enchanted swamp, its residents a family, and her father a companion as well as an adversary. Though the film’s post-Katrina/global warming message is apparent, Zeitlin is careful not to preach or censure and it does not distract too much from the father-daughter storyline.
The real gems in the film are the two leads: Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry, who each deliver excellent performances despite their almost total lack of experience. Together, their relationship is agonizing, poignant, and tender all at once, and it leaves you to hope that there will be equally powerful performances from them in the future.
Despite creating waves through the festival circuit, the movie has only had a limited release this summer. Catch it if you see it playing at your local arthouse theatre.