Like the mythical creatures conjured by the film’s young protagonist, Beasts of the Southern Wild seems to rumble out of nowhere, overwhelming us with deeply felt emotions, brilliant performances, and style to burn. Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature has already won the Grand Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, and the Camera D’or (Best First Film) at the Cannes Film Festival. Beasts of the Southern Wild takes us into the highly imaginative universe of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis).
Hushpuppy is a six-year-old African-American girl who sort-of-lives with her dad (they have separate shacks) in “the bathtub,” a fiercely independent, multi-racial community on an island below the floodplain on the outskirts of New Orleans. They have a vibrant life, completely cut off from modern society, but Hushpuppy instinctively senses the fragility of their existence. Her apocalyptic premonitions come true with the arrival of Hurricane Katrina, which literally turns their world upside-down and poisons their land. By viewing this haunting story through the eyes of Hushpuppy, a young child whose imagination has never been constrained by the reality of our modern society, filmmaker Benh Zeitlin plunges viewers into a universe that is alive with fantastical creatures, ominous portents, and mythic resonances. The film vibrates with the intensity of childhood, and the dominant emotions of that time: beauty and terror.
The film’s striking imagery and strong affinity with nature have drawn comparisons with the work of Terrence Malick, but an equally likely influence is the loose limbed, quirky work of Robert Altman. Zeitlin shares Altman’s ability to draw rich performances from a tightly-knit ensemble of actors. Wallis is mesmerizing as Hushpuppy, and Dwight Henry is pitch-perfect as her proud but erratic father. This is bold and illuminating filmmaking takes us somewhere we’ve never been before, shows us amazing sights, and introduces us to an unforgettable cast of characters. Beasts of the Southern Wild bristles with energy, humor, and haunting insights into the challenges of living in our crazy world.
While Beasts of the Southern Wild is wildly phantasmagorical in form, the film works because it is rooted in very real emotional truths. Most people’s lives aren’t as unstable as the inhabitants of “the bathtub,” but almost anyone can understand Hushpuppy’s real joy experiencing the world’s wonders, and her willingness to fight to save her home and community. -Dylan Skolnick (USA, 2012, 91 min., color, Rated PG-13, 35mm – Director/Co-Writer: Benh Zeitlin – Co-Writer: Lucy Alibar – Cast: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Gina Montana, Levy Easterly)
“A stunning debut that finds its dandelion-haired heroine fighting rising tides and fantastic creatures in a mythic battle against modernity.” -Peter Debruge, VARIETY