Beasts of the Southern Wild
Directed by Benh Zeitlin
Written by Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin
Starring Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry
Rated PG-13 for thematic material including child imperilment, some disturbing images, language and brief sensuality
Running Time of 90 Minutes
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a singular and overwhelming work. It reminds us of the power of cinema and that it is the most rounded art form because it not only combines all audio and visual elements, it can inspire us to feel. Through simplicity and energy, life and joy, dedication and detail, debut filmmaker Benh Zeitlin has crafted a film of sheer beauty. It has the rare and innate ability to inspire awe in the most old fashioned sense of the word. It is an assured and accomplished work that lifts us up to the ceiling. It is ultimately indescribable, though I will try my best.
There are elements of the work of others that one can draw from in order to attempt to rationalize a full picture of the tone and mood of Beasts. Hints of Terrence Malick, early David Gordon Green, and Maurice Sendack form together in a strange way, yet what Zeitlin has made is also uniquely his own. Beasts of the Southern Wild simultaneously exists in both the real world and in its own universe. It makes clear and obvious allusions to Hurricane Katrine without explicitly commenting on it, and it is a film that consciously decides to not deal with social, racial, and political issues. The color and financial situation of its characters, though clearly detailed, doesn’t matter in the least. Beasts of the Southern Wild has something else entirely on its mind. A world unto itself has been created called The Bathtub. Separated from everything else by a giant levee, The Bathtub is a richly imagined world crafted and constructed with great detail, and filled with incredibly pure life and individuals who exemplify just that. Our young heroine Hushpuppy and her father Wink reside in The Bathtub. It is their home, their life, their land. In the course of the film’s brief 90 minutes, each and every one of which is used to its fullest potential, The Bathtub faces its destruction and miraculously begins to come back to life.
This film is Hushpuppy’s story, and through her eyes it is a profound coming of age tale in a classical sense. Young Quvenzhane Wallis is exceptional in the role; she is filled with strength and force and a huge soul. Her narration comments both on how she views her experiences and surprisingly philosophical notions for a 6 year old child. Throughout the film we chart the course of her relationship with her father, Wink. Portrayed by Dwight Henry in his first film role, Wink is clearly sick and a bit tempermental, but wants nothing more than to care for his daughter and teach her how to survive the Bathtub way. Henry’s role is a bit showier, but both him and young Wallis are incredibly nuanced and naturalistic, as if they simply are these characters. Their chemistry and relationship is palpable.
Utilizing elements of magical realism, Beasts of the Southern Wild is ultimately a story of survival. Hushpuppy must face her fears and grow up far too young, coming to terms with her place in the universe. Despite what others outside of The Bathtub may say, she fights to hold on to her home and preserve it for herself and her friends and family. The film does not tell a narrative in the traditional sense and is more interested in mood, atmosphere, feeling, and tone. By combining spectacular, free flowing imagery as crafted by director of photography Ben Richardson and the incredibly fresh and flavorful music score by Dan Romer and Zeitlin himself, we are simply transported to this unusual but vital world. In artistic terms the film is almost impressionistic. It is a wonder to behold, and has a power over the audience that is quite rare.
The film plays with ideas of the strength of imagination and tests the audience every step of the way. A group of prehistoric creatures known as aurochs that were frozen in the polar ice caps escape and set a course for destruction. Hushpuppy tells us about these creatures and we know that in some way their paths must intertwine. In its final act, Beasts of the Southern Wild reaches dizzying heights of construction and emotion, and I was left shaking in my seat, overwhelmed, refreshed, and inspired. The film is about strength, vitality, the power of imagination, love for family and our home, and ultimately how at the end of the day we are each just a tiny little piece of the giant puzzle. With unabashed joy and admiration for human life, Benh Zeitlin and his co-writer and friend Lucy Alibar has made a film that is as vivid and remarkable as anything else from recent memory. This film defines what cinema can be, and how it can make us feel above all. It is magic.