Inspired by rather than directly adapted from Lucy Alibar’s play Juicy & Delicious, Beasts of the Southern Wild is the ambitious debut feature of 29-year-old American filmmaker Benh Zeitlin, who co-wrote with Alibar.
A tremendous achievement of American magical realism, Beasts is the deeply affecting tale of a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy living in a poverty-stricken Louisiana bayou community known as the Bathtub. Abandoned by her mother as an infant, she lives with her temperamental father and a menagerie of pets, and distracts herself from their destitution with her wild imagination. Easily influenced by the adults in her life, Hushpuppy idealises her father’s Big Fish-esque anecdote about her conception, which involved a gator, and after learning about the Ice Age from her teacher envisions the release from the Arctic ice of huge ancient bulls, aurochs, which she sees as harbingers of the apocalyptic climate change affecting her hometown.
When a Katrina-like disaster befalls the Bathtub, Hushpuppy, her father and other resilient residents do their best to survive and rebuild, refusing to leave their homes at the behest of government officials. All the while Hushpuppy must stem her fears about the end of the world as her own world is washed away and seems to collapse with the ailing health of her father.
Injecting this film with energy like a steroid through its veins is miracle discovery Quvenzhané Wallis, whose boldness contradicts her innocence and inexperience at every turn, manifesting an unforgettable performance as Hushpuppy. With a face that can transmit more emotions than most actors eight times her age, her boundless energy and confidence prove her a true natural talent, and she makes the part indistinguishable from herself.
Shot on 16mm, the grain at first distracts before you realise its role in coating the Bathtub in a haze that serves to distract from the overgrown flora and rotting architecture, accenting the lights and colours. Ben Richardson’s cinematography approaches Malick in its longing for the natural beauty of Louisiana, and though it never reaches that filmmaker’s glorious excesses, his talent is unmistakable.
In what is one of the most ambitious special effects decisions in recent memory, Zeitlin and his crew have elected to show the approaching aurochs not as CGI creations but as costumed pigs, maned and tusked, shot on miniature sets. Hearkening to an older time in special effects, these fancy dress hogs look better than anything in Avatar, a film with nearly 200 times this film’s budget.
The score, composed by Zeitlin himself with Dan Romer, is one of the most inspired and inspiring from any film this year, ricocheting between bombastically uplifting and eye-drowningly sad. Strains of Deep South instruments sell the atmosphere of this fantasy real world.
Alibar’s dialogue captures the magic and tragedy of childhood. “I’m going to find my mamma,” Hushpuppy tells a boat captain, whose facial expression does not rule him out as a threat to the wandering child. “Well,” he replies softly, “that’s a good place to be going.” Gentle humour and sweetness radiate throughout the film.
Some viewers may find the film’s treatment of “the joy in poverty” troubling, but like David Gordon Green’s George Washington there is no lack of hardship, and the joy found is used to persevere, as opposed to being a call to return to nature. In another similarity to that film (and indeed the films of Terrence Malick), Beasts relies heavily on voiceover narration, but it never cripples the film, and Wallis’s sweet, wondrous voice carries it through.
Already a prize-winner at Sundance and Cannes, Beasts of the Southern Wild is destined to be a major contender come awards season, and has introduced the world to several new talents. Its magic won’t work on everyone, but the lucky many will be seduced. If your eyes can stay dry as Hushpuppy recalls the bare few times her father ever lifted her up in his arms, then the rest of us will feel deeply sorry for you.