Today’s cinema adventure: Beasts of the Southern Wild, the 2012 first feature from director Benh Zeitlin, a movie which rose from acclaim in the festival circuit to become hailed as one of the best films of the year. The story of a little girl and her father who face the destruction of their way of life as rising sea levels threaten to submerge their Louisiana fishing community, it not only took top awards at the Sundance, Los Angeles, and Cannes film festivals (among many others), it also surprised many industry insiders by earning nominations for several Academy Awards- including Best Picture, Best Actress (for Quvenzhané Wallis, at 9 years old the youngest person nominated to date for this award), and Best Director, with newcomer Zeitlin edging out several favored contenders to gain his slot in the latter category.
Adapted by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar from the latter’s one-act play, Juicy and Delicious, the film unfolds through the perspective of Hushpuppy, a 5-year-old black girl who is part of an isolated community on the Isle de Charles Doucet, known to its residents as “the Bathtub,” an island in the mouth of the Mississippi River delta at the southernmost edge of Louisiana. Following a generations-long tradition, the people of the Bathtub eke out their simple existence by harvesting the riches of the sea; they are separated from the wider world by geography- and the levee which protects the population of the north from the fluctuations of the tides and the weather- but they are fiercely proud of their heritage and their independence, despite the precarious nature of their existence at the mercy of the ever-rising sea levels. Little Hushpuppy- though she lives by herself in a separate house- is under the care of Wink, her short-tempered but loving father; she is also, like all the children of the community, under the watchful eye of Miss Bathsheba, the island’s schoolteacher, who tells them how the melting ice caps will cause the ocean to eventually submerge the Bathtub. Her lessons also include stories about their prehistoric ancestors and the fierce wild beasts- the aurochs- which preyed upon them. These things have a deep impact upon Hushpuppy’s inner life- she imagines the great aurochs slowly being released from their frozen sleep by the melting ice, and slowly making their way towards the Bathtub. She also maintains an imaginary relationship with her long-absent mother, as well as making drawings which she intends to be found by “scientists of the future.” As for Wink, his health is clearly deteriorating; he disappears for days, eventually returning in a hospital gown, and he sometimes collapses into a near-catatonic state, but he refuses to acknowledge this weakness to his daughter. An approaching storm soon supersedes all other concerns, and though some islanders opt to abandon their homes for higher ground, many stubbornly refuse to leave. Wink and Hushpuppy weather the violent storm, but when it subsides, the Bathtub is flooded underneath several feet of water. The two form a camp with fellow survivors to wait for the flood to recede, but their hardships are only beginning; the salt water lingers, slowly killing the land beneath it, until Wink develops a desperate plan to solve the problem by sabotaging the levee. The resulting consequences could lead to the islanders’ forced evacuation from the land they love, as well as the separation of father and daughter. As the aurochs grow nearer in Hushpuppy’s imagination, she resolves to undertake a journey which might help her to flee the troubles which have enveloped her world- or to find the answers and the strength she needs to face them.
Zeitlin’s movie is a remarkably unique accomplishment, to be sure. He takes us into a world most of us have never seen or even known about, revealing its conditions with a documentarian’s style while using it as the basis for a multi-layered metaphor infused with humor, drama, and fantasy, one that addresses human concerns from the most basic and primal to the most pressing and contemporary. With a restless, hyper-mobile camera, mostly utilized for extreme close-ups and wide establishing shots, he pieces together a clear, compelling narrative that grabs us from the beginning and keeps us riveted throughout. He tells his story through impressions, a whirlwind of fleeting images that somehow conveys all the pertinent information we need to follow the plot and connect with the emotional reality of its people, while also suggesting the perspective of its tiny lead character on the constantly-fluctuating reality that surrounds her. This is all the more remarkable in light of the fact that he never looked at any of the raw footage from the shooting process until it was time to edit the film into completed form. Any of these feats alone would be enough to mark Zeitlin as a gifted young director; taken all together, they herald him as a prodigy.
All of his prowess behind the camera would be for naught, however, if not for the casting of young Wallis in the film’s central role. At 6, she possesses more screen charisma than that shown by any number of established starlets in their entire careers, and the sheer power of her diminutive presence is enough to make Beasts of the Southern Wild an unforgettable film. It’s one of the most impressive film debuts in recent memory, and certainly one of the strongest juvenile performances in cinematic history; Zeitlin builds his movie around it, and it never comes up short. Of course, considering the young lady’s age- and the certain fact that film is a director’s medium- it is possible that Wallis’ formidable performance may be at least partly the result of careful editing, pieced together by Zeitlin himself to achieve maximum effect; even if this were the case, however, the little girl’s presence, personality, and raw honesty are undeniably on display, and these qualities cannot be faked even by the most gifted film technician. She is well-deserving of all the kudos she has received. She is ably supported by Dwight Henry, as her father; a non-professional, like the rest of the film’s cast, he is a New Orleans’ bakery owner whose life experience as a survivor of two real-life hurricanes- Betsy in his childhood, and Katrina as an adult- helps to infuse his performance with an innate understanding of the precariousness of his character’s situation, and he is equally capable of capturing the volatile psychological chemistry that makes Wink both charismatic and intimidating. The rest of the cast is as authentic a collection of local faces and personalities as ever seen in a fictional film, underscoring the documentary feel and helping to transport us completely into the unfamiliar world it depicts.
There are any number of reasons why Beasts of the Southern Wild is an excellent and exciting piece of filmmaking, the aforementioned performances and direction among the foremost. For many viewers, it will doubtless be considered great; for me, however, despite its many strengths, it falls just short of that mark. For all its imagination, its blend of harsh social realism and youthful fantasy is held together by a plot that is ultimately as typically “Hollywood” as any mainstream studio family picture you might think of. Zeitlin and Alibar’s screenplay undertakes from the very beginning to tug at our heartstrings in a manner which would seem insultingly blatant if not for the film’s edgy style, and despite the seemingly detached empiricism of the director’s approach, Beasts of the Southern Wild has a calculated feel in the way it manipulates our sympathies throughout. We never really get the chance to make up our own minds about how we feel towards Hushpuppy, Wink, or the Bathtub itself and its way of life; we are guided to our conclusions by Zeitlin’s steamroller approach to the story. Of course, it is a work of fiction, so there are no aesthetic or ethical reasons why the writing and direction should not be designed to elicit a desired response from the viewer; and it’s not as if the movie lacks any sincerity- on the contrary, it’s clear throughout that it is a work of deeply heartfelt passion. Nevertheless, there is a heavy-handed quality to the narrative that ultimately leaves us feeling less satisfied than wheedled into submission.
This is not to say that Zeitlin’s film is a failure, by any means; Beasts of the Southern Wild is a refreshing example of the kind of cinematic magic that can be created outside of the numbers-driven system of mainstream movie-making, and it leaves an indelible impression upon any viewer. Audiences whose tastes run towards sentimentality will undoubtedly find it an exceptionally rich experience, and even those who prefer a less “precious” approach will be moved by it, if not overwhelmed. It may not be the masterpiece that some have hailed it to be, but it’s still an impressive work of art by a promising young director. To be truthful, Quvenzhané Wallis alone provides a good enough reason to see it; but beyond her remarkable performance, there is also a thought-provoking and resonant meditation on the nature of human existence in the universe, both as individuals and as a whole, which contemplates everything from parental bonds to global warming and manages to leave us with a thrilling sense of hope and possibility despite a story which dwells in desperation and dysfunction. It’s a rare film that can pull off a trick like that, and even if some of the trickery might be a little obvious, it’s still an accomplishment that deserves to be lauded.