Borne on the bayou
SINCE it was launched at Sundance earlier this year, Beasts of the Southern Wild has taken the film festival world by storm, including winning the Camera d’Or (best first feature) award in Cannes. This isn’t surprising given that Benh Zeitlin’s film is like nothing you’ve seen before. It’s a contemporary fantasy of sorts, set in a world that’s part make-believe, part forbiddingly real, and it contains one of those sublime performances by a child actor that comes along every few years.
The setting is the Bathtub, a fictional area of small islands and levees located off the coast of Louisiana; the people who live in the Bathtub are desperately poor, their homes are ramshackle constructions made of detritus gathered from various sources, and they live in a constant state of fear — fear that nature will destroy them or, just as bad, that wellmeaning but insensitive authorities will drive them away from the place they call home. Not far away, oil refineries pump pollution into the water, pollution that is gradually killing the fish and crustaceans on which the people who live here survive.
This primal setting is the home to six-yearold Hushpuppy, played with a pitch-perfect blend of cockiness and vulnerability by the remarkable Quvenzhane Wallis, a native of the area who was five when she was cast in the role. Hushpuppy lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in a ramshackle house wedged into the side of a tree. A battered ute makes do for a boat in which father and daughter move around this complex system of waterways. Hushpuppy’s mother ‘‘ swam away’’ years before and Wink is seriously ill; he is determined to pass on to his daughter the life lessons she’ll need to survive after he’s gone, and she’s quick as a whip, eagerly digesting everything he has to tell her — though she’s only a kid and makes mistakes, such as blowing up part of their house in her attempts at cooking.
This is such a primeval environment that you have to keep reminding yourself that the city of New Orleans is just across the water, though nobody who lives in the Bathtub shows any inclination to go there. To make life for the people who love this place even more difficult, there are forecasts that a mighty storm is coming, perhaps a reference to Hurricane Katrina, though the film was made long after that disaster devastated the area.
At the core of the film is the father-daughter relationship, all the more remarkable in that neither Wallis nor Henry had acted before
(MA15+) ★★ National release
✩ (Henry is a baker whose bread and cake shop, the Buttermilk Drop, was visited regularly by Zeitlin and his casting director before they had the idea that the guy who baked the bread might play the lead male role in their movie.)
This previously unexplored world of water and swampy marshland comes vividly alive in the film. Zeitlin studied film in Prague with the great Jan Svankmajer, and also claims John Cassavetes, Mike Leigh and Emir Kusturica among his influences. No wonder he has come up with a vision unlike anything we’ve seen before.
There are a couple of drawbacks that prevent Beasts of the Southern Wild from being a major film experience. With the advancing storm and Wink’s declining health already creating a mood of tension it was surely unnecessary to visualise the monsters that seemingly haunt Hushpuppy, the literal beasts of the film’s title. These are aurochs, giant prehistoric animals that look like fearsome boars with their prominent tusks and threatening disposition; I’m not sure the film needed them.
And I wish Zeitlin had controlled the camerawork by Ben Richardson a great deal more. It would have been understandable to use jerky hand-held camera in certain scenes but the entire film is shot this way. Its impact is reduced as a result. THIRTY-SEVEN years ago Steven Spielberg’s Jaws terrified beach lovers the world over with its spine-chilling depiction of the lethal attacks made on unsuspecting swimmers by an unusually large great white shark. The film spawned countless sequels and rip-offs, the latest of which is the home-grown Bait, a crafty shocker set in a Queensland coastal resort devastated by a tsunami. It’s safe to say that if Spielberg had had access to today’s technology, Jaws would have been even more terrifying than it was. Bait has that technology, and 3-D, but is a lesser film because the characters and dialogue fall well short.
Bait is a B movie and there’s nothing wrong with that; some of my favourite films are B movies. Indeed the screenplay, by Russell Mulcahy (who originally planned to direct it himself) and John Kim, sets out to have fun with the genre.
There’s a bunch of standard characters, starting with lifesaver Josh (Xavier Samuel), who is devastated by the death-by-shark of his best mate, Rory (Richard Brancatisano), who is also the brother of Josh’s girlfriend, Tina (Sharni Vinson). Some time later Josh is wasting his life working as a shelf-filler in a supermarket managed by Jessup (Adrian Pang) when Tina shows up after spending time in Singapore, accompanied by handsome Steven (Qi Yuwu). Then a couple of gunmen, one masked, attack the store and kill a female customer — just as the tsunami hits.
The unmasked gunman is Doyle (Julian McMahon), who’s not really a bad guy, but who is the other, the really bad guy? Did he survive or did he just remove his mask? And what about the heavily tattooed loudmouth played, with minimal subtlety, by Dan Wyllie? Did I forget the presence of shoplifter Jaimie (Phoebe Tonkin), the daughter of security guard Todd (Martin Sacks)?
As the waters rise and the survivors take to the highest shelves, it becomes clear that a very hungry shark has ridden the wave into the store. From here on you can play the game guessing who will be the next victim and who will survive to the end. (Curiously, given that this is the first Australian-Singapore coproduction, the Asian characters get very short shrift.)
Director Kimble Rendall, an experienced and talented second-unit director with one previous feature — Cut (2000) with Kylie Minogue — to his credit, pulls off one or two very effective shocks, and generally keeps the tension bubbling despite the corny dialogue and some actors who look as if they wished they were elsewhere (and who can blame them — it hardly looks like a comfortable shoot).
The American accents adopted by several of these Queenslanders are a bit bewildering, but the sharks look pretty convincing and the film delivers the requisite moments that make you jump in your seat. The 3-D process, for once, adds to the experience.
Quvenzhane Wallis is sublime as Hushpuppy