Produced by the self-proclaimed “grassroots, independent filmmaking army” Court 13 and very loosely based on the one-act play Juicy and Delicious by Lucy Alibar, Beasts of the Southern Wild is the directorial debut of Benh Zeitlin. A magical realist fable about a potential ‘end of days’ storm and the return of mythical creatures, Beasts of the Southern Wild is quite unlike any other film you will see this year.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a fantasy drama set in the small island community of Isle de Charles Doucet, which is cut off from the rest of the world by a levee in New Orleans and is affectionately known as ‘The Bathtub’ to its residents. It follows main protagonist Hushpuppy (QuvenzhanÃ© Wallis), a precocious and fiery six-year-old who has a deeply-rooted understanding of the world, passsed down to her by the adults in The Bathtub. Ignoring warnings of impending floods, mirroring those caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Hushpuppy and her father Wink (Dwight Henry) stay with a small number of other community members to continue living their lives unaware that a prehistoric group of animals called ‘aurochs’ have escaped their frozen tombs in the South Pole and are on their way.
Shot on sixteen millimetre film, Beasts of the Southern Wild and its director Zeitlin are clearly influenced by the work of Terrence Malick. There is more than a passing resemblance to The Tree of Life for example, but where the experienced auteur Malick is able to investigate the themes of life, childhood memory and the world as a connected living consciousness, Beasts of the Southern Wild and its auteur Zeitlin have a rough-edged naivity that better suits the story of such a wide-eyed firecracker like Hushpuppy.
Beasts of the Southern Wild explores the keen self-awareness of young Hushpuppy, someone so naive and untainted by cynicism that she actually believes that she can communicate with animals and in some instances is able to achieve the seemingly impossible, just by facing it with courage. It is through her eyes that we as an audience perceive everything around her. She confidently talks about the world as an entity that must shift and change to remain balanced and she is more than aware that her life is only a small piece of the giant puzzle. This understanding does not however remove her from the trials and tribulations of a hard life in a small independently spirited community and she even has time to learn a certain level of cynicism that her expectations will sometimes not be met. It is these scenes, often shared with her screen father Wink, that are a true revelation.
These two central lynch-pins each bring a unique sense of realism to Beasts of the Southern Wild. Untrained in acting and from the films location of New Orleans, both have a rich charisma that is captivating, terrifying and utterly convincing. Henry has said that he has no plans to continue acting, which is a real shame because he has the wild, captivating passion of a young Marlon Brando as well as the undeniable cool of Samuel L. Jackson. Wallis however is the star, with her unusual tones narrating the action, leaving the young actress to act in a more physical way, which she does to aplomb. Not in many years has there been a performance so harsh, so brave and so sensitive and she is a tiny force of nature.
Pitched somewhere between fantasy and fiction, Beasts of the Southern Wild could easily be a post-apocalyptic vision of the future, with its ramshackle contraptions and a group of fascinating people living on the outskirts of accepted society. Yet the interesting setting, superb casting and wonderful Louisianna Bayou-inspired soundtrack lift Beast of the Southern Wild into incredible new territory. It is a slice of Wild West Americana from the deep South. Fired by the independent spirit that is so synonymous with the United States in American peoples minds, but which is so rarely true, Beasts of the Southern Wild kicks, fights and spits its way to a fantasy ending that is as uplifting as it is heart-breaking. Looking to produce films about communities, made by communities; Court 13 and Zeitlin have created something wonderful and inspiring and a film that will speak to people of all ages. It is truly one of a kind and one of the most exceptional films of the year.