“BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD” explores the fertile and terrifying world of a child’s imagination. Its fertility and its terror stem from the same truth: To the young mind, there is no sealed barrier cleaving reality from fantasy. The only wall bisecting one world from another in Benh Zeitlin’s damply poetic debut film is a levee: a barricade separating the people of the Bathtub, a dirt-poor community in the wetness of the Louisiana Delta, from residents of “the dry side,” an alien territory devoid of joy and freedom.
“BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD” is a first feature by Benh Zeitlin, based on a screenplay and stage play “Juicy and Delicious” by his collaborator, Lucy Alibar. The film is set in the present but there’s an ancient, eternal quality about it – time seems scrambled within the film, whether through the score that embraces traditional tunes and electronic effects, or the introduction of a disaster that seems both allegorical and contemporary.
Hushpuppy lives with her father. Her mother has gone, in circumstances that are not clear, but her absence is felt almost as a presence – she is spoken of and longed for. The father, Wink (Dwight Henry), is portrayed in a complex way. He is sick and volatile, but she is strongly attached to him. Hushpuppy and Wink lead a scavenging life on the margins, but Zeitlin doesn’t seem to emphasise deprivation: the stronger focus is on how Hushpuppy sees things, and on her resourcefulness, her sense of responsibility, her clarity and her imaginative freedom. She is, unequivocally, a child, not a precocious mini-adult.
Bathtub is offshore from New Orleans, isolated by levees, existing self-contained on its own terms. It is a small hamlet clinging to the edge of coastal Louisiana. It’s more a state of human entropy than an actual village. The houses are nailed together from driftwood and tin scraps; dirt roads are carved out of overgrowth; there’s no difference between what’s useful and what’s junk. It’s chaos and it’s a community. Cut off from the mainland, surrounded by rising waters, the Bathtub is a desolate wilderness of poverty where a small community struggles to survive. The Bathtub is full of misfits living in muddy, boozy squalor. They make do, out on the edge of civilization: Houses are made from scraps, and Wink fishes out of a boat fashioned from the back half of a pickup truck. And everyone gorges on mounds of crawfish and copious amounts of booze, with fireworks and fiddle music. Hushpuppy considers it “the prettiest place on Earth.” She is a fierce and unbreakable 6-year-old girl who lives here with her father, Wink, and other survivors who live so close to the earth that it might as well be part of them. Hushpuppy and Wink are close, and her father does all he can to teach her survival skills. That doesn’t stop him from giving her a whack alongside the head when she carelessly starts a fire.
The events of the film play out in her imagination and in a place of stark yet poetically evoked specificity. As well as fending for herself, she must deal with the monsters in her eyeline, as visible as tin cans or trees or fish: to her they are aurochs, creatures from prehistoric times who have returned to the world. What are we to make of the Aurochs, prehistoric beasts Hushpuppy learns about in her classroom and whom she imagines breaking free of their glacial prisons during the apocalypse. They are part of her imaginative life, yet they also seem like manifestations of something more, something beyond her. At times, there seems to be little difference between the two.
A fearsome storm is said to be on the way, but existence here is already post-apocalyptic, with the people cobbling together discarded items of civilization like the truck bed and oil drums that have been made into a boat. Their ramshackle houses perch uneasily on bits of high ground, and some are rebuilding them into arks that they hope will float through the flood.
“Beasts” is a first feature by Benh Zeitlin, based on a screenplay and stage play “Juicy and Delicious” by his collaborator, Lucy Alibar. They found post-Katrina locations in the ravaged bayous of Louisiana, and constructed on a small budget their convincing and meticulously detailed settlement. What really works are the performances of newcomers Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry. Wallis is Hushpuppy, a wild-haired 6-year-old, a motherless little girl on the edge of civilization. The story’s told through her eyes and her words, as she narrates preciously, a little too much so sometimes.
In the Gulf of Mexico, on the “wrong side of the levee,” a white, black, and Cajun community of scruffy survivors clings to a damp bit of turf they lovingly call the Bathtub. Everyone in the Bathtub knows one another, and in a sense, they’re all the same age — which is Now. It is a daily struggle, helped for some by alcohol, and they recite their communal myths of liberated ice age creatures that will come foraging for them as the glaciers melt. It’s hard not to see “Beasts” as an expression of post-affluent America.
Zeitlin’s characters, most played by nonprofessional actors, are survivors but not salt-of-the-Earth types. Dwight Henry, a New Orleans baker and owns his own pastry shop, who plays Wink,had the casting people visit him in the middle of the night because he bakes all night. He said he’s not interested in an acting career. His life is centered on his wife and five children. They are his bedrock, and that is the conviction he brings to the role of Hushpuppy’s daddy. Zeitlin has a heartwarming camera subject in Quvenzhane Wallis, who was 5 when she was picked from a reported 4,000 candidates to play Hushpuppy. Under a mop of hair is a moppet’s face, clear and soft and watchful. She says, “When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me flying around in invisible pieces.” She thinks a lighthouse signal from a distant shore is meant for her — her absent mama reaching out — and tries to think of how to answer back.
This film is a remarkable creation, imagining a self-reliant community without the safety nets of the industrialized world. Someday they will run out of gasoline for their outboard motors, and then they will do — well, whatever people did before they needed gasoline. This movie is a fantasy in many ways, but the authenticity and directness of the untrained actors make it effortlessly convincing. While one can make “Beasts of the Southern Wild” into an allegory of anything one may want, it is far too detailed and specific to fit easily into general terms. Not much dialogue fills “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” the script doesn’t explain every last detail; Most of its words are heard in Hushpuppy’s pip-voiced narration, and many of them are cryptic. But this, too, is part of the Southern Gothic tradition. Few are more aware of their place in the grand scheme, and less literal in describing it. In the part where Hushpuppy’s home and world are washed away by a flood, there’s no doubt we will think about the impact of hurricane Katrina, and as she and her fellow inhabitants of the Bathtub come into contact with welfare workers and authority figures, Beasts of the Southern Wild assumes a more tangible contemporary context. But it’s never quite specific, even at this point: it feels as if it is more about what happens when two very different ways of understanding the world collide with each other. For Hushpuppy, it doesn’t feel as if she is being saved or rescued; indeed, it’s the reverse.
Hushpuppy Quvenzhané Wallis
Wink Dwight Henry
Jean Battiste Levy Easterly
Walrus Lowell Landes
Little Jo Pamela Harper
Fox Searchlight Pictures presents a film directed by Benh Zeitlin. Written by Lucy Alibar and Zeitlin, based on Alibar’s play “Juicy and Delicious.” Running time: 93 minutes.