A magnificent debut from Behn Zeitlin (already showered with awards at Sundance and Cannes) and an immensely moving coming-of-age story (of sorts). 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' is a father/daughter survival story (of sorts) set in the fringes of civilization in Southern Louisiana in the most environmentally vulnerable place in the region. Wink and his daughter, Hushpuppy, live a hand-to-mouth existence in abject poverty yet live a life of inspiring freedom and verve. This is an experiential film about youth, stylized with the same kind of dreamy realism as the more accessible and admittedly on-the-nose 'The Tree of Life'.
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) dir. Behn Zeitlin
Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly, Lowell Landes
By Alan Bacchus
The term magic realism gets thrown around a lot when describing a mixture of fantasy within realistic situations. I never really got the expression, but if anything this picture is the epitome of the term. For one, Zeitlin achieves remarkable freshness and authenticity in his world using a company of completely new, non-professional actors, all of whom perform on camera with the utmost of naturalism.
Beasts rarely gives the audience a chance to rest, as it's fuelled with the cinematic momentum of an action film. The opening scene kick-starts us by injecting us into the lifestyle of a group of people we’ve never seen before on film – a half-dozen families (black and white) living in the area of Southern New Orleans called ‘the Bathtub’. It's just below the levees that protect the city, thus an area prone to flooding and the worst of the hurricanes the area has to offer. Living on a small island without electricity or any semblance of civilization, the group live a salt-of-the-earth life, vagabonds perhaps but with a strong sense of home and community. Their commitment to their home is so strong that when an unnamed but powerful storm strikes, their island is left flooded and they are forced to improvise and survive and avoid the evils of society, including people that would condemn them and their lifestyle.
All of this is told from the point of view of a young child named Hushpuppy, a sprite six-year-old who knows no other way of the world but through the unconventional education of her father, Wink, who through action and observance learns discipline and survival. At first, watching Hushpuppy operate a gas stove with a blowtorch, run around half naked while spraying fireworks into the air or eat fried cat food for a meal is terrifying to watch, especially as a parent. But Zeitlin is clear not to judge his characters. Hushpuppy accepts her existence and lives her life with as much passion, excitement, awe and wonder as anyone else.
The relationship between her and her temperamental father is just as terrifying. Wink often leaves his daughter on her own in their rundown shanty home for days at a time, a plotting element that pays off with startling emotional impact in the third act. But the paternal bond between the two is as powerful as any father-daughter relationship ever put to film.
However unconventional Zeitlin’s cinematic style, his storytelling is as classic and accessible as it comes. Zeitlin sends a laser to our emotional core with such precision, the film ends with a finale so powerful, satisfying and inspiring it sends the film into the cinematic stratosphere. So, after all the magic realism and seemingly 'experimental' filmmaking, Beasts reveals itself as a surprisingly conventional film. It's heart-on-the-sleeve filmmaking at its best.
Beasts of the Southern Wild opens Friday in selected cities in Canada from EOne Films.