In Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, a small community of outcasts exists south of New Orleans’ levees. The people reside barely above sea level, in what they lovingly refer to as “the Bathtub.” It is in this post-apocalyptic looking district that our narrator, Hushpuppy (amazingly young Quvenzhane Wallis) lives. Hushpuppy exists in what most would consider abject squalor but in her head the world is magical and full of possibilities.
A big winner at Sundance (and many other festivals), Beasts takes a lyrical approach to storytelling. The camera drifts around the derelict abodes and barely maintains focus on the tiny protagonist. The effect is like a documentary camera capturing a child’s dream. But things get dark quickly, Hushpuppy must contend with an approaching storm, her ailing (and sometimes abusive) father, and eventually the beasts of the film’s title. The creatures are an interesting break from convention, which can be interpreted anyway you like, really. Hushpuppy’s journey is fascinating in its own right, but the post-Katrina/global warming commentary adds a nice layer.
When dealing with a child actor as young as Wallis, it’s hard to say how much comes from the skill of the performer and how much is the talent of the director guiding and cutting around them. Whatever the answer is, the performance is extremely effective. She doesn’t have to deliver many lines or emote all that often, but she is fantastic at simply being. I believe in Hushpuppy. I couldn’t stop wondering where everyone got their fresh drinking water, but I believed in this tiny firecracker. The performance from Dwight Henry as Wink, Hushpuppy’s father, was also brilliantly realized. He’s a troubled and prideful man, but you definitely feel the love he has for his child and his disappointment in himself for his failures.
The score is possibly the film’s best asset. Co-created by Zeitlin and Dan Romer, it has the quality of triumph and sadness. The film definitely has a Miyazaki vibe to it, namely very young children dealing with parental peril (My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away). And it is more specifically like the second half of Ponyo, where a lot of the story is searching through the flotsam on a small, makeshift boat.
I can’t decide if this is a universe I wish I could adventure in or a scary place to avoid at all costs. Likewise, I can’t quite conclude whether Wink is the best Dad of all time or the absolute worst. Ultimately, these conflicted opinions are simply a testament to the kind of depths the film achieves. What to make of it all may take more time to consider, but it is surely a film unlike any you have ever seen before.