by Padraic Coffey
Owing more than a little to Terrence Malick with its tranquil voiceover and xylophone-heavy score, Beasts of the Southern Wild marks the debut for Benh Zeitlin, and was awarded the prestigious Caméra d’Or at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. It tells the story of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis, in what is destined to go down as one of the great childhood performances in cinema), a six-year-old girl residing in dilapidated Louisiana campsite ‘The Bathtub’ with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) and a host of neighbours, separated from more civilised society by a levee. Despite a sometimes volatile relationship with Wink, who preaches tough love in an effort to build up his daughter’s independence, Hushpuppy’s life is far from an unhappy, though the spectre of an impending flood looms large. When that event occurs, Hushpuppy and Wink are forced to abandoned their home, with a view to returning.
The grim subject matter which forms the basis for Beasts of the Southern Wild is rendered bearable through the fanciful perspective of Hushpuppy. She is in the tradition of tomboyish narrators like Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird, another character affected by the early loss of her mother, and the resultant strengthening of her paternal relationship. The movie flits between stark reality and surrealism, the prehistoric Aurochs (enormous warthog-like creatures) of which Hushpuppy is told appearing as the manifestation of her fears. Wallis’ performance is truly extraordinary for an actress of her age, as is Henry’s, infused with an authenticity arising from their local recruitment in Louisiana.
Filmed on 16mm and blown up for the big screen, Beasts’ grainy look befits the ramshackle nature of the setting it surveys. Occasionally Zeitlin reverts to stock footage to purvey Hushpuppy’s fears at the prospect of the South Pole’s icecaps melting, after which the Bathtub will be submerged underwater. Given the obvious allusions to Hurrican Katrina and its aftermath, Zeitlin admirably keeps the tone non-partisan. The Bathtub consists of both black and white inhabitants, united by their common adversary to the more domesticated world beyond the bayou.
Beasts of the Southern Wild will not be to everyone’s taste. Some may long for a more unified narrative on which to chew. “I wanna be cohesive”, Hushpuppy tells a ship captain on his way to a bayou brothel, and one can’t help be wish the filmmakers shared a similar sentiment. Nonetheless, Beasts of the Southern Wild is an often beautiful film which marks Zeitlin out as a talent to watch.