Beasts of the Southern Wild
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a spellbinding document. Hushpuppy is a fearless 6 year old girl that lives with her father Wink in a place she refers to as “The Bathtub” – a southern community along the Louisiana Delta. Hushpuppy and Wink live in abject poverty. This tale exposes a subculture of which many Americans may be unaware. The utter squalor suggests a third world country and not the U.S. at all. The presentation is like anthropological evidence of a civilization hidden from view.
Director Benh Zeitlin has assembled a cast of locals with no acting experience. Dwight Henry who plays Wink, owns and runs a cafe in New Orleans in real life. Here he plays a stern man that practices a version of tough love with his daughter to keep her prepared for a rough existence. At least they’re surrounded by a close-knit community that support one another. Quvenzhané Wallis is a revelation as Hushpuppy. She casually observes everything around her with keen senses. Fortunately Wallis is untrained and natural, and she’s flawless. I hesitate to even call it acting because Zeitlin has wisely allowed her to simply be. Witness the tender display where she holds the tiny critters she discovers close to her face. It’s just as you would listen to the ocean in a seashell held up to your ear. Her poetic voice-overs help educate the viewer. One on one banter is irrelevant. It’s the visual that becomes the focus. Many scenes simply rely on the emotion she registers on her expressive face. The lens lovingly registers every expression upon her countenance.
Beasts subverts the very conventions of film. The filmmakers have filtered the narrative through the stream of consciousness of a young girl. It’s fiercely innovative, highly distinctive and peculiarly told. This doesn’t rely of the traditional methods of storytelling. It’s filmed rather haphazardly and much of the discourse is indecipherable. But all of these techniques actually serve to heighten the drama of a bewitching little girl. As she drifts through life, her observances of adult conversations can be confusing. Dialogue fades in and out, people talk over each other, local jargon is used – it’s an admittedly free-form script. At times I almost wished for subtitles. As a child’s grasp of the conversation of a roomful of adults is superficial at best, so too is ours of their discussions. This cursory comprehension of what is being talked about helps define our intrepid main character. Her understanding or lack thereof is also our understanding. This allows the audience to identify with her all the more.
The chronicle is highlighted by a gorgeous poeticism . It presents these people, without the artifice of Hollywood. As Hushpuppy’s world gets tougher, temperatures rise and the ice caps melt causing mythical prehistoric creatures called “aurochs” to run loose toward their area. The rising waters threaten their region. Shades of Hurricane Katrina, but past the politics that would divert attention from these fascinating people. Wink disappears for a period and we’re unclear as to where he has gone. He later returns wearing a hospital gown, but still fails to give an explanation. Just what exactly is going on? And where is her mother? These are questions that Hushpuppy has as well as she attempts to locate her missing parent. The action is very much filtered through he eyes of a toddler. We aren’t privy to adult discussions. Hushpuppy is left in the dark much in the same way. The cinematography utilizes a shaky cam, often from a low vantage point as if Hushpuppy were carrying the camera herself. In adopting this approach, director Benh Zeitlin has created a much more heartbreaking work of art from Lucy Alibar’s one-act play. While the events unfold, they tend to meander. We realize there really is a story – just not a traditionally told one. The footage is raw. However, Beasts of the Southern Wild becomes an even more elemental picture because of it.