In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, there have been many films, documentaries, and even TV shows chronicling the aftermath. Many focus less on the devastating storm itself, and more on the strength of the human spirit; the unbreakable bonds of culture and tradition that have bound the residents of New Orleans together ever since. The storm is never actually mentioned by name in Benh Zeitlin's mesmerizing Beasts of the Southern Wild, but its power and presence looms over every frame, only matched by the film's sheer intensity and poetic beauty.
A sweeping montage narrated by a plucky six-year old girl named Hushpuppy(Quvenzhane Wallis) introduces us to the Bathtub, a sort of junkified Eden that exists outside of big city concerns and social norms. It's apt title refers to the fact they are completely surrounded by water, subsisting near the Louisiana levees and crafting a fiercely independent culture all their own, one that thrives on community and heritage. It's a tough life, and survival takes hard work and a lot of luck, but the Bathtub isn't a place of depression. It's magical, full of life and celebration, and appreciation for what little joys they can find.
Hushpuppy lives in the Bathtub with her father, Wink(Dwight Henry), a man so determined to survive the rigors on his own that he's literally killing himself with the effort. But it's necessary in order to teach Hushpuppy how to survive without relying on his support. Like everyone else in The Bathtub, she must be strong and self-reliant. She has to learn to use the land, the animals, the recycled junk, to carve a life for herself in case Wink isn't around. And so he teaches her, through an angry baptism by fire, how to raise chickens, and cook, and punch fish in the face after pulling them directly from the water. The life-giving water that is both their salvation, and seen from a different perspective, their curse. See, there are big changes coming. Whether it's climate change or some other man-made occurrence, the water isn't as bountiful as it once was, and these fringe dwellers start to see the so-called civilized world infringing on their little society. His health failing, and an epic storm on the horizon, Wink does the only thing he knows how, which is to fight. As Hushpuppy says early on, "Everybody loses the thing that made them. The brave men stay and watch it happen. They don't run." The Bathtub is dying, but the residents would rather go down with it than dare ask for help.
It's incredible how much story Zeitlin is able to fit into a slight 92 minute run time, and at times it does get a little overwhelming. Clearly, he's a filmmaker with a lot to say about a number of different things, and he approaches this rich, contemporary fairy tale from a place of deep concern. Falling in love with the people and the culture of New Orleans while filming his highly regarded short film, Glory at Sea, he's cast mostly unknown local figures to add an extra layer of authenticity, as if it was needed. Quvenzhané Wallis, only 6-years old when the film was shot, is an absolute force of nature, with an indomitable will and natural innocence that drives much of the story. Dwight Henry, a community fixture who ran a bakery shop, was another untrained actor before Zeitlin came calling. His passionate performance is truly something to behold, and his real life history informs so much of it that there's barely a moment that doesn't feel genuine. It's no wonder Hollywood has come courting him for other roles, and if there's any justice we'll be hearing his name mentioned come awards season.
Zeitlin co-wrote the script alongside Lucy Alibar, whom also crafted the stageplay from which the story originated, and it's a prime example of ambition achieved through simplicity. The narrative is fairly straight forward, seen entirely through the imaginative eyes of Hushpuppy, and imbued with a child's hopefulness. It's remarkable that this would be Zeitlin's feature debut, as it bears the touches of a veteran filmmaker, with lyrical flourishes reminiscent of Terrence Malick. Visually unique, the world of the Bathtub is akin to Where the Wild Things Are meets Treme. It's a place where seemingly anything can happen, like the emergence of huge prehistoric creatures that may or may not be figments of Hushpuppy's considerable imagination. Zeitlin doesn't keep you in this dreamlike world for too long, walking a fine line between the magical and stark reality.
The response to the film has been incredible, as it has taken home awards at both Sundance and Cannes, rare feat for a first time director. While at Sundance, the crowds were so huge that even critics(like me, unfortunately) were getting turned away at the door. There are numerous reasons why everyone has responded to the film with such rave reviews. With its combination of extraordinary storytelling, incredible performances, and stunning beauty, the film also has an emotional resonance few films can match. Beasts of the Southern Wild doesn't just change the way we look at modern day fairy tales, it reinvents how we use such stories to entertain, inform, and enlighten.
Zeitlin seems poised to be a director with a special voice, and Beasts of the Southern Wild a film that will take the country by storm. Movies like this don't come around very often, but when they do they should be embraced and celebrated.
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