If you haven’t heard a lot about Beasts Of The Southern Wild yet, then its possible you’re going to in time. This charming, family-orientated semi-cataclysmic fantasy tale directed by Benh Zeitlin has all the hallmarks of an indie sleeper hit. Centred by a thoroughly endearing and naturalistic turn from child actor Quvenzhané Wallis, it’s the kind of creatively engaging and emotionally involving tale that spreads by word-of-mouth as much for it’s joie de vivre as it’s bittersweet sentiment. People will love it because it makes them laugh and because it makes them cry.
Like a heady, energetic fusing of Where The Wild Things Are and The Road, Beasts is set in a not-too-distant future in which global warming has caused significant melting of glaciers. As such, sea levels are rising and large areas of the American south are frequently flooded to the point where they are not safe to call home. They have been evacuated, but there are those who choose to remain, rejecting the government’s insistence on relocating them for their own good. Who is ‘the man’ to decide where someone’s home is? One such community – known as The Bathtub – is the focus of this film, viewed through the eyes a young girl named Hushpuppy (Wallis).
Hushpuppy’s mother is long-gone, though her memory remains and lives on – given life in heart-rending scenes in which Hushpuppy speaks to her through an old dress. Her father Wink (Dwight Henry) is growing sick, and their ability to continue in such unpredictable surroundings is growing more uncertain by the day. Theirs is a life dependent on carefully measured food reserves and an instinctual reverence for the natural world around them, even when it threatens to engulf them. Wink is not a perfect father, prone to outbursts and childlike sulks of his own, but Hushpuppy is at an age where she is defiantly testing boundaries. Early on she sets fire to her own home as a form of protest. Despite explosive arguments and threats from both sides, theirs is a relationship truthfully built out of love and codependency.
Around them, a small collective of cast-offs and eccentrics form a strangely intimate community, eking out an existence under unusual circumstances. This is not presented as a string of dour hardships however, but carries the celebratory revelry of a lifelong Mardis Gras. The spirit of Louisiana is felt strongly in Beasts, the scenes of flooding strongly echoing news reports from Hurricane Katrina seven years ago. The quixotic sense of community that New Orleans is known for is the same glue that holds together this band of merry survivors, and Hushpuppy is it’s beating heart.
Wallis is a sheer delight in this role, and Zeitlin’s film joyfully captures the invisible horizons of a child’s imagination, a world in which it is entirely possible for loved ones to morph into bugs or trees, and in which animals can communicate through the sounds of their blood pumping. Hushpuppy holds small birds to her ears, divining their thoughts. The film also nails the young’s strange ability to make astute assessments of things largely outside of their understanding. During a visit to a hospital, the narrating Hushpuppy notes matter-of-factly that “when an animal gets sick here, they plug it into the wall”.
Zeitlin, who also has a co-credit on the film’s emotive score, keeps his picture fizzing with energy. The camera is forever restless, darting here and there, rushing through woodlands, or swaying around interiors. The film itself is also defiantly grainy and rough, reflecting the shanty-town dwellings of The Bathtub’s inhabitants, homes of rust and rotting wood. Beasts defies pigeonholing as a sci-fi parable by negating the tropes of futuristic cinema. Late in the film, what appears to be a makeshift brothel is permeated by crackling, sultry jazz. The scene could just as easily be taking place in the twenties as in some near future. In their shabby, penniless existence there is no electricity, no cellphones. As precarious as their lives are, the broken world of The Bathtub is drawn through Hushpuppy’s eyes as a paradise.
This is, ultimately, a film about a relationship between a father and daughter, and even when at odds with one another (which is a lot of the time), the chemistry between Wallis and Henry make Hushpuppy and Wink a pairing to root for. It is from this potent bond that I draw the comparison to The Road. In terms of tone, Beasts feels almost like a live-action Hayao Miyazaki feature. The cornerstone themes of Studio Ghibli are here; the preservation of nature and the importance of the family unit.
There are some triumphs of editing in this film too. During one impressive early sequence when Hushpuppy may have inadvertently injured her father, the thunder breaks. Another storm coming. At this moment Zeitlin cuts from a shot of Hushpuppy and the clap of the thunder, to a shot of a glacial cliff collapsing, expressing the small catastrophe in Hushpuppy’s life in a split second. The film is peppered with such collisions of imagery, making for a visually stimulating experience.
So even if the film’s central emotional journey lacks originality, the way it is presented feels unique, exciting, fresh. This is a beautiful little film that deserves to get a lot of attention. I’ve scored favourably recently, but then a lot of what I’ve seen has been of exceptional quality. Beasts Of The Southern Wild continues this trend, as the tail-end of 2012 is proving to be a rich time for new films. Try not to lose sight of this one in the shuffle.