Beasts of the Southern Wild (Director: Benh Zeitlin): Reactions to Benh Zeitlin’s first feature film have ranged from critical raves calling it a masterpiece to Twitter gripes that it’s nothing more than a swampy mess. In my opinion, it’s neither, but the handful of prestigious awards it’s racked up so far are by no means undeserved.
As a fan of Zeitlin’s 2008 short film Glory at Sea, (embedded below) I went in knowing what to expect. His blend of narrative lyricism and a rough-hewn, handmade style of art direction and filmmaking technique isn’t for everyone. Yes, there’s some shaky camerawork. Yes, there are lofty philosopical sentiments placed into the mouth of our 6-year-old protagonist. You’ll either trust Zeitlin and jump in with both feet or you’ll be turned off right away. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll likely know which camp you fall into already.
For me, it was helpful to remind myself that the story belongs to Hushpuppy, a six-year-old girl trying to make sense of a very harsh environment. She might be unnaturally precocious and display remarkable strength, but she’s really kind of making it up as she goes along. Her lyrical voiceover is her attempt to forge some sort of world view, and though it’s impressively poetic, it’s also pretty simplistic. Reminiscent in many ways of David Gordon Green’s debut feature George Washington (2000), the film’s use of a child’s voiceover is likely to alienate some viewers by attributing a kind of folk wisdom to someone so young. But for me it mostly works, mainly due to the remarkable performance of Quvenzhané Wallis. This tiny powerhouse was just five years old when she auditioned, and if this isn’t one of the standout performances of the year, I don’t know what one would look like. Because the film is essentially her story, she needed to be very very good. And she’s even better than that.
She plays young Hushpuppy as someone discovering that the world isn’t such a nice place. She lives in a ramshackle community of eccentrics called The Bathtub that appears to be cut off from the mainland by a levee. While the mainlanders live in fear of storms and the water, the denizens of The Bathtub enjoy more holidays than anyone in the world. Every day seems like a party, and seen through a child’s eyes, these drunken fatalistic revels might seem like fun. As adults, we can see the darkness and desperation in these lives.
Her father Wink seems angry a lot, when he’s not distant. In fact, when he wanders off for several days leaving her to take care of herself, we don’t get the impression that this is out of character. But when he comes back wearing a hospital gown, Hushpuppy begins to worry. Added to that, the local teacher has no qualms about terrifying the children with stories about the coming storms. She even tells them about prehistoric beasts called aurochs frozen by the Ice Age into glaciers; glaciers which are now melting, by the way.
In the way that young children tend to do, when she realizes the “big” storm is coming, and that Wink may be dying, she connects it with something she’s done wrong. But because of her father’s relentless drive to toughen her up physically and mentally, she doesn’t shrink from the world’s brutality, but rises to meet it head on. It’s this core message that is most moving, even when the residents’ refusal to leave the flooded and dangerous Bathtub seems to make no sense at all.
“Strong animals don’t run away from danger,” Hushpuppy intones toward the end of the film. And she proves herself a strong animal, standing up quite literally to the beasts of the title. It’s powerful, but also terribly sad. She’s had the innocence kicked out of her at a much younger age than most kids do. Hushpuppy might be six years old but it feels like she’s never been a child.
I do have some problems with the film, chief among them its way of romanticizing poverty and disaster. Although he’s avoided most of the normal cliches of portraying residents of the bayou, he hasn’t been able to resist the dramatic pull of Katrina. The plot also goes seriously baggy about two-thirds of the way into the film, when Hushpuppy and some other kids find their way to a floating brothel in search of some motherly love.
But for a first feature, Beasts of the Southern Wild will put Benh Zeitlin firmly on the map of young American filmmakers to watch. If he’s able to fulfill his stated determination to stay put in New Orleans and resist Hollywood’s siren call, his next film will be interesting, if only to see if the filmmaker, like his characters, can forge a life after the storm.