A Brilliant Beast

Despite appearances, Beasts of the Southern Wild is not a film about a child. Young director Benh Zeitlin, making his debut feature, has managed the almost impossible. Rather than leaving the viewer outside of story he has created an atmosphere both unique and completely immersive. Beasts is a way into the world of a child, a fragment of life seen through the eyes of a six year old, and makes for riveting watching.

This success partly comes through Zeitlin’s impressive sense of location and willingness to take risks. Set in a fictional isolated Cajun fishing community divided from the nearby factories by a giant levee, Beasts was filmed in Louisiana, with a cast largely taken from the local community. Dwight Henry, playing Wink, ran a bakery across the street from the casting agency for several months, meeting the film producers and auditioning by chance. Quvenzhané Wallis, playing Hushpuppy, also lived locally. Together, they root the film firmly in the world drawn by Zeitlin, looking completely at home amidst the waters and forest. Indeed Henry lived in New Orleans through Hurricane Katrina, experiencing conditions akin to those faced by the film’s characters.

Yet although the film’s narrative thread is based around a storm that hits the village, it is really centred on the relationship between the girl Hushpuppy and her father, Wink.

Wallis brings across the life of Hushpuppy with an intensity that draws in the audience – despite her young age she conveys the drives and emotions of the lead role in a powerful and often moving fashion. Dwight Henry as Wink also puts in a strong performance; his portrayal of the joys and difficulties of fatherhood feels natural and uncontrived. Showing this bond through Hushpuppy’s eyes adds a new dimension to much of what happens – Wink’s parenting might at times be difficult to comprehend were it not for her sympathetic view, allowing us to fully understand how their lives mesh together.

Throughout the film, Zeitlin’s lightness of touch brings out the best from both the plot and his actors. When Hushpuppy explains how the polar caps are melting, releasing the boar-like Aurochs from their icy entombment, it’s left to the audience to decide exactly what to make of these events and Hushpuppy’s perspective. Other plot elements are also left open to a variety of interpretations. Whilst some might find this unsatisfying, I found it to make for a far more rewarding movie, easily repaying any effort invested.

Meanwhile, hand-held camerawork and original music capture the life and vivacity of the isle on which Hushpuppy lives. A spectacular opening sequence captures one moment in a culture with “more holidays than the whole rest of the world”, whilst more serious moments have a naturalistic feel which adds weight to the thoughts of Wallis’ young character. Occasionally the story almost slips out of view completely, intertwining with a simple depiction of life in a bayou community – it’s rare that a piece of cinema feels as alive as this.

Made on a minimal budget, Zeiltin’s movie has won acclaim and awards with triumphs both at the Sundance Festival, where it won the main Grand Jury Prize,  and Cannes, in the Un Certain Regard category. Beasts is as interesting as it is unique. For a relatively mainstream film it takes an excitingly oblique angle both in terms of narrative and subject. Without any particular audience or objective seemingly in mind, Hushpuppy’s gentle narrative has a quiet beauty: “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece… the whole universe will get busted.”

Will Warner

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