Storming through this year’s independent film festivals, Beasts of the Southern Wild is the surprisingly wonderful feature from first-time director Benh Zeitlin. Having wowed critics enough to be placed highly on ‘Film of the Year’ lists, and with heavyweight endorsements from President Obama and Oprah Winfrey ensuring the public vote, it seems firmly on the road to Oscar success. Funded by Cinereach, a nonprofit organisation offering finance and mentorship to artful young filmmakers, and the first feature-length project to be supported by Court 13, a grassroots community group of filmmaking artists, its story of triumph over the odds is as much about the film’s warm reception on the international stage as its young protagonist.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is arguably a dystopian fantasy although its realism is extremely close for comfort. It’s completely plausible that a whole forgotten strata of lower class citizens live in poverty beyond the New Orleans levées, a community proud and strong with its own authentic culture, patois and identity. And it is with New Orleans – its devastation in the face of Hurricane Katrina and its continuing aftermath – that this film so closely aligns itself in character and setting.
The inhabitants of The Bathtub, a small island deep in a Louisiana bayou, live in dilapidated shacks with the certain and unquestioned knowledge that their land will disappear beneath the rising waters sooner or later. And yet there is passion, humour and friendship within the community. The natural landscape comes alive with visually stunning cinematography; colourful and terrible, it’s a main character in itself and the inhabitants of The Bathtub live harmoniously alongside and within it; this is their home. The water threatens their very existence, but it’s not their enemy— that role belongs to the distant gleaming towers of industry, glimpsed over stolen trips to the levées, and with whom they have an uneasy relationship.
Six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives in her own wooden shack and her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in his. She stomps around The Bathtub in her wellies and he holds her at arm’s length. Mourning the departure of her mother years before and hiding his failing health, Wink dispenses a cool, absent type of parenting, doggedly determined to instil in his daughter the courage and durability she needs to be “Queen of the Bathtub”. But it’s not without love, and there are some especially poignant moments such as when Wink tries to teach Hushpuppy how to survive when he is no longer there to provide for her. It is the complex relationship between the father and daughter that grounds the film.
The titular beasts stalk Hushpuppy throughout the film as imaginary manifestations of her powerlessness in the face of events beyond her control; their eventual subjugation is essential if she is to face her new world alone.
It’s rare to find an actress so young who can give a performance as stunningly assured as this, but Quvenzhané Wallis does it with ease and it will probably be remembered in years to come as one of the best child performances of all time. But we should also give credit to Dwight Henry who is quite remarkable, taking a difficult, damaged character and making him not just sympathetic, but admirable. It’s even more incredible to think that neither actor has had any professional training or experience, yet both inhabit their roles so naturally.
Beautifully filmed and scored, this is without doubt a gorgeous film that will hold you enthralled from start to finish.
Guest blog written by Melody Fuller, self-confessed film addict