Child’s eye view on tough times
NLY once in a great while does something as utterly distinctive and captivating as Benh Zeitlin’s independent feature Beasts of the Southern Wild come along like a breath of fresh air.
The film premiered at Sundance, where it arrived with zero advance hype and left with a well-deserved Grand Jury Prize win and an award for Ben Richardson’s extraordinary 16mm cinematography.
The best reason to wade into this (let’s be honest) challenging but hugely rewarding film is Quvenzhane Wallis – a six-year-old with no acting experience at the time of filming. Unforgettable as the film’s fierce young protagonist, she provides narration that doesn’t exactly walk viewers through the shockingly impoverished milieu this unusual movie pretty much throws you into.
Hushpuppy and her mostly inebriated father Wink (Dwight Henry) live in adjoining, junk-filled shacks in a ramshackle Louisiana Delta community cut off from New Orleans, and the world, by an enormous levee.
Wink, who knows he is dying, has been preparing Hushpuppy – who he often addresses as ‘‘boss’’ and ‘‘man’’ – to survive on her own, since her mother ‘‘swam away’’, as the youngster puts it.
Beasts was adapted from a play – by Zeitlin and the original author, Lucy Alibar – but it’s hard to imagine anything this cinematic and organically rooted in a specific locale taking place on a stage.
One key concept carried over was prehistoric beasts freed from their icy graves by global warming, which serve as a harbinger of doom for Hushpuppy and Wink’s tiny, fictional community, known only as The Bathtub – itself an allegorical stand-in for preKatrina New Orleans.
Movies that mix magic and gritty realism almost never work, but Zeitlin, in an auspicious feature directing debut, pulls it off with awesome results (and the help of extremely impressive special effects for a film that cost about $1 million).
A flood swamps this impoverished but vibrant community, whose members float in improvised boats waiting for the waters to recede – only to be herded into an emergency shelter when they do.
By this point, Wink’s declining condition has forced Hushpuppy to take full charge, which she does in ways that are immensely moving and inspiring.
Henry strikes just the right note as the gruff Wink, whose fathering style might be labeled borderline abusive in a more familiar context.
Gina Montana, another standout in the locally recruited cast of nonprofessional actors, provides a crucial contrast as Miss Bathsheba, a teacher, medicine woman and surrogate mother to Hushpuppy.
It’s the effortlessly charismatic Wallis who deserves a Best Actress Oscar nomination, at the very least, for the most commanding juvenile performance since Keisha Castle-Hughes received a nod for Whale Rider nearly a decade ago.
Beasts of the Southern Wild, whose mood is enhanced with Cajun-style music, has been compared by some to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life because of its intoxicating visuals and the presence of prehistoric beasts in both films.
That’s meant as a compliment, but Zeitlin’s film isn’t afraid to tug at your heartstrings in a way the coolly cerebral Malick probably never would.
Director Benh Zeitlin and Quvenzhane Wallis on the set of