Beasts of the Southern Wild
Directed By: Benh Zeitlin
Written By: Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin
Starring: Quvenzhane Wallis, Dwight Henry
Director of Photography: Ben Richardson, Editors: Crockett Doob and Affonso Gocalves, Production Designer: Alex DiGerlando, Original Music: Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin
After the first ten minutes of the Sundance smash Beasts of the Southern Wild, I was ready to flee from the theater. Set in an area of Southern Louisiana called “the Bathtub,” the film quickly introduces us to our protagonist Hushpuppy, who says lines about how all the universe is connected. Her home is a grassy plain filled with trash and animals and full of characters who speak with pride about an us vs. them mentality. The director Benh Zeitlin fills the palate with intense non-linear shots that confuse the viewer into astonishment, not to mention the overbearing score. Oh God, what have I walked into? Yes, Beasts is not your typical Sundance film—there’s no mumbling, no digital video, and no 20-somethings attempting to figure out what to do with their trust-funded lives—but damn, I thought, is that precociousness and sense of wonder going to feel like my head being slammed against the wall.
But then, I gave in, and accepted Zeitlin’s film on its own terms: a fairy tale, and an imaginative one at that, set as a coming of age story in a part of Americana rarely explored on film. Beasts never quite won me over—the amount of tears pouring from my fellow audience was quite a contrast to my dry face—but its earnestness and exploration of familial relationship centered itself.
But wait! How can someone just like this film? Either you must be over the moon, calling it one of the best films to ever play at Sundance, or as Ignatiy Vishnevetsky prefers, “bullshit.” To not love this film is to reveal that you are a callous and cynical critic who can’t accept a film for its given premises and to not hate it is to reveal you are a sucker for fraudulent cinematic techniques. There has been too much digital ink poured over Beasts of the Southern Wild that it almost feels like discussions are no longer about the film. Tim Grierson writes at Deadspin that Beasts is a “model independent film,” which means the problems of Beasts must stand for the entirety of filmmaking outside of Hollywood (and you thought Lena Dunham had it bad!).
But what is this film about? What does Zeitlin want to do? The film is about a 6 year old girl only known as Hushpuppy, who lives with her father, Wink, down near New Orleans, in an area forgotten by modern man, who lives across the other side of the levees. Hushpuppy is more or less left to her own accord; Dink occasionally gives her a grilled chicken (cooked whole, no spice) and teaches her a lesson or two, but he is also an alcoholic and suffering from heart complications. And soon enough, a great storm washes away her world, leaving her and Wink and a few stray survivors to do what they can while the only place they’ve known crumbles around us.
Shot in handheld 16mm often at the height of its four foot tall protagonist, Zeitlin takes visual cues from directors as difference as Terrence Malick and Spike Jonze to piece together Hushpuppy as a passive and scared individual of her dying world to a leader of her own destiny. Her voice over narration certainly feels similar to Linda Manz in Days of Heaven, though Zeitlin makes sure she comments on the larger stakes (Malick’s characters may talk about their relationship to the universe at large, but in The Tree of Life, it is heavily influenced by the Christian teachings they’ve been taught since childhood). In fact, the further Zeitlin expands the world of Beasts of the Southern Wild, the more apparent that the film seems to pour on its symbolic imagery (at a Q&A after the film, Zeitlin claimed it was more of a collaboration than a solo effort, and they would often add elements to the narrative as they appeared during their process). A late third act sequence in which the Bathtub community directly confronts the outside world is hilariously mismanaged (I’ll note that many have taken charge that Zeitlin, a Queens native, is not poor like his characters, but I’ll remind those critics they were angry that Ms. Dunham only wrote about her own experiences). There is a wondrous sequence near the end of the film where Hushpuppy and the children that follow her to an almost heavenly bar (the lights have that hazy magic hour look), though did it really need to be named Elysium Fields? Oh right, there’s also the titular beasts, traveling across the Earth.
But when Beasts of the Southern Wild centers itself only between Hushpuppy and Wink, Zeitlin finds the film’s emotional core. Wink wants to be a good father, but he is unable to control his impulses (he is still a child himself in many ways). Hushpuppy is too young to care for herself, but must lead on anyways, soaking up what she can learn from this world. The final few scenes between them are ferociously emotional. Zeitlin doesn’t let his young actress Quvenzhane Wallis play for what we expect—in one sequence, it is her furious and silent face to her father that says everything we need to understand about her emotional state. Beasts of the Southern Wild doesn’t have to be realistic; it just needs to be honest, and most of that comes through the face of Wallis as she lives no longer on the side of her community, but becomes its no longer innocent leader.
Beasts obviously has some political connotations connected to it, with its levees, and flood and mean old government, and the message it suggests seems quite particularly unintelligent (even if we’re in Hushpuppy’s perspective, it’s clear these people are not going to make it). But there is also some remarkable imagery—the crosscutting of a storm with the ice caps melting, pounds and pounds of shellfish, and a lone boat floating in what seems like a post-apocalyptic narrative. Critics of Beasts on both side seem eager to pounce on each other, for not “getting” what seems so obvious. The ironic truth is that Beasts of the Souther Wild is simply a small, messy but occasionally delightful film, floating across our cinematic shores with no pretensions of its own.