8-14 March 2013 #646

Beasts of the Southern Wild

This film has rawness, a poetic heart, beautiful imagery, and a little girl as the protagonist
Sophia Pande

Benh Zeitlin’s entrancing new film, also his first feature, has the heart and soul of true independent cinema. Shot on 16 millimetre film in the heart of Louisiana, the film was made for a little under $ 200,000, the majority of actors had never been on camera before, and the main character, the six year old ‘Hushpuppy’ played by the fierce, vulnerable, adorable Quvenzhané Wallis was actually only five years old at the time of her audition.

Beasts of the Southern Wild has rawness, a poetic heart, beautiful imagery, and a little girl as the protagonist. With its hints of magical realism, the film follows in the footsteps of other greats such as The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), a wonderful movie by Victor Erice about a young girl who befriends a Frankenstein type monster lurking on the outskirts of her rural home, and Pan’s Labyrinth (2003), a film by Guillermo del Toro, about another young girl called Ofelia who discovers a magical world of not so benevolent fairies and fauns during the height of fascist Spain towards the end of World War Two.

Beasts follows in this grand tradition of young girls grappling with monsters, slowly coming of age, but without losing their innocence. Hushpuppy too, must deal with the decline of her oft drunk father, the loss of their charmed lives in the ‘Bathtub’ (an area of Louisiana unprotected by the levees and thus extra vulnerable to hurricane like storms), and the approach of the Aurochs, behemoth like prehistoric, mythical creatures that have melted out of the ice that entrapped them and are making their way across America towards Hushpuppy and her beloved home.

While the film has been both lauded and criticised for its episodic, almost fragmented narrative filled with searingly beautiful scenes, it is far from an arbitrary bunch of images tied together through Hushpuppy’s charming narration. The writers, Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar, are skilled storytellers who know exactly what they are doing.

The beginning of the film, though apparently formless, introduces the carefree lives of the community who choose to reside in the ‘Bathtub’ despite its hardships and their life of relative squalor. The various and colourful characters are all named during this time, each of them standing out in our minds.

When the storm does come, this introduction makes us care for all of the characters, young, old, drunken or not. The writers also draw the relationship between Hushpuppy and her father ‘Wink’ with pathos and humour. They love each other, but each character, being indomitable in their own ways, resists the other’s overtures fiercely until the storm and Wink’s illness finally create an unspoken understanding between them.

It is Hushpuppy though, that astonishes the most in this wondrous film. Wallis shows no artifice as she explores her world, alternately marveling at the beauty around her, laughing, scowling, burping, ripping apart lobsters, and punching her father in the chest when appropriate.

Hushpuppy’s journey, her courage, her imagination, and her wide-eyed stare are the reasons behind this film’s resonance. Somehow, Benh Zeitlin managed to write a version of “The Great American Story”, but with a heroic little black girl at its heart. Even more astonishingly, he managed to find the one girl who could actually pull it off.

For anyone who loves cinema, this film is a must. It might seem experimental, fragmented, and pretentious to some, but for those whose minds are open, Beasts of the Southern Wild is an adventure for your soul.

Beasts of the Southern Wild directed by Benh Zeitlin