Benh Zeitlin’s Cannes and Sundance festival winner is a visionary debut
By Ian Haydn Smith
Hushpuppy lives in the small, eccentric settlement of Bathtub, which lies south of New Orleans and, precipitously, outside Louisiana’s vast network of protective levees. As a result, the enclave’s residents are permanently exposed to the destructive whims of nature. Hushpuppy’s father, Wink, believes a storm to end all storms is imminent, which will cleanse the world, but also wash away their home. He is ailing. Hushpuppy’s mother, as Wink puts it, swam away years ago. Left to her own devices, the young girl has gathered together everything she needs to survive – even, she believes, an ability to talk to animals and to her absent mother.
American cinema has two modes when it comes to representing the deep south. It can be a place fraught with danger to outsiders, as evinced by John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) and Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort (1981), in which locals are portrayed as interbred hicks whose behavioural traits rarely extend beyond feral savagery. Then there is the poetic depiction of the dispossessed. David Gordon- Green’s elegiac George Washington (2000) and Lance Hammer’s stark Ballast (2008) are two recent examples. These films, told from the perspective of their young male protagonists, refuse to shirk the harsh realities of life in the region, which can be unforgiving for those without means.
Zeitlin says of Beasts that he wanted to combine ‘‘the poetics of an art film with something that feels like Die Hard ’’. He achieves this with the pre-credit sequence – an octane-charged, Fellini-esque carnival replete with grotesques and pyrotechnics. Pieced together like an action sequence by Crockett Doob, with the assistance of experienced editor Affonso Gonçalves, it sets the tonefor the rest of the film. We are immediately immersed in Hushpuppy’s realm; everything we see is witnessed through her eyes. And to her, Bathtub is the world.
This prelapsarian idyll, leavened by the tales her father has told her, is a accompanied by Hushpuppy’s innocent narration. It recalls Linda Manz’s naïf in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978). However, Linda was older and vaguely aware of the failings inherent in those closest to her. For Hushpuppy, everything Wink tells her is gospel, from the disappearance of her mother and the impending storm, to the polar ice caps melting. That might release the mythical, child-eating Aurochs. That the appearance of these creatures seems only natural highlights how perfectly Zeitlin has conjured up this universe.
Quvenzhané Wallis was five years old when she was cast as Hushpuppy and seven by the time it was completed. And she is astonishing. That we believe in this place, a magical realist fantasyland, is down to the conviction with which she guides us through it. Zeitlin first encountered this area of Louisiana when he shot his post-Katrina-inspired short Glory at Sea there, in 2006. Evidence of the environmental impact upon the region, from both the elements and the industrial plants that litter the distant landscape, is always present, but never forced upon us. We could choose to see this film as a parable of our wanton destruction of nature, or America’s neglect of its underclass. But Zeitlin is too clever to preach. The wonder of his film is that for all the hardship, Beasts of the Southern Wild is an exuberant and joyful celebration of life.
With thanks to Curzon Cinemas
Beasts of the Southern Wild screens at Cornerhouse from Fri 19 October. For details click here