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One of the most striking films ever to debut at the Sundance Film Festival, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a poetic evocation of an endangered way of life and a surging paean to human resilience and self-reliance. Shot along the southernmost fringes of Louisiana, cast with nonactors and absolutely teeming with creativity in every aspect of its being, Benh Zeitlin’s directorial debut could serve as a poster child for everything American independent cinema aspires to be but so seldom is. A handcrafted look at the struggles of some of the poorest people in the United States is no prescription for commercial success, but the presence of a dynamite little girl at the center of things could, along with critical praise and enlightened handling, push this most unlikely but entirely elating drama into a successful specialized theatrical release.
The first few minutes alone establish Zeitlin as some kind of heir to Terrence Malick in the way he makes nature register onscreen. The images of thick green flora and fauna, the wetness, the wildlife that is always “feedin’ and squirtin,’ ” in the words of young heroine, the proximity of water and land and sense of the area’s precariousness, stuck out on its own away from the mainland but within sight of a hulking industrial area, all back up 6-year-old Hushpuppy’s contention that she and her dad live in “the prettiest place on Earth.”
At the same time, the area, called The Bathtub, is also grimly depressing. Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) and her father Wink (Dwight Henry) live in filthy, jerryrigged quarters propped up on precarious stilts, and Wink’s boat consists of the rear end of a rusty pickup truck set atop oil barrels. The locals, who run the racial gamut, love to party and dance and are always drinking. But they possess the fierce pride of outcasts, holdouts and mavericks, determined to survive as they always have in a place where nature is partial to playing its whimsical games.
The tough-minded local schoolteacher instructs the kids about how they’re all simply meat, just like all the other creatures that surround them, and while Hushpuppy firmly believes that everything in life is interconnected, she’s warned by the teacher that, “Any day now, the fabric of the universe is coming unraveled.” While this sort of statement might suggest an imminent big ecological lesson, the forecast seems entirely organic to a place that was so recently ripped apart by Katrina and where outlying areas are diminishing in size at an astonishing rate.
More important, the characters here are not intellectuals, scientists or politicians. To the contrary, they live more in accord with the ways of the animal world, a notion fostered not only by the constant scenes of fish, crabs, birds and even alligator being harvested, cooked and consumed but by the occasional sight of a few animals that resemble giant wild boars and are called aurochs thawing out from prehistoric ice and eventually merging with the world of The Bathtub. Major CGI-reliant scenes are not what one expects in a defiantly independent film like this, but they are very nicely rendered and are all of a piece with what surrounds them.
At home, life is not so harmonious. Having been told that her mother just “swam away,” Hushpuppy has to contend with a father who, when not off hunting or fishing, is often drunk, angry and not above striking her. But he’s all she’s got, and he does teach her how to be tough in the face of horrific adversities. It’s part of the wonder of Wallis’ amazing performance that her tenacity and fortitude seem absolutely real, not posed or artificially induced. Like Wallis, who was selected from among a reported 4,000 applicants for the role, Henry had never acted before and registers powerfully as both a caring and quite scary character.
Things go from bad to worse after a big storm and the subsequent dynamiting of a levee by Wink, his daughter and some cronies, upon which The Bathtub is declared a mandatory evacuation area. An inadvertent visit by Hushpuppy to a “Floating Catfish Shack” filled with friendly prostitutes possesses a magical fantasy element that is as entrancing as it is entirely unexpected.
Undetectably based on a play, by co-scenarist Lucy Alibar, Beasts unequivocally casts a spell, one that emanates from the strange world it inhabits and evokes, as well as from the extraordinarily sensitive and expressive way Zeitlin and his colleagues have rendered it. The director, who made a short film called Glory at Sea in 2006, assembled a sort of collective of artisans to collaborate on this feature, and what has come of it, in the way the exquisite images, fleet cutting, exotic music, vivid naturescapes, native people and local language merge so seamlessly, is a movie that pulsates with the stuff of life. It’s very much an art piece, to be sure, but it feels like a genuine one that, while meditated, speaks fluently and truly for the place, people and culture it so indelibly depicts.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Production: Cinereach, Court 13
Cast: Quvenzhane Wallis, Dwight Henry
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Screenwriters: Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin, based on Alibar’s play “Juicy and Delicious”
Producers: Michael Gottwald, Dan Janvey, Josh Penn
Executive producers: Phillipp Engelhorn, Paul Mezey, Michael Raisler
Director of photography: Ben Richardson
Production designer: Alex DiGerlando
Editors: Crockett Doob, Affonso Goncalves
Music: Dan Romer, Benh Zeitlin
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