This is a week that restores one’s faith in contemporary cinema. Left gasping by Monsieur Lazhar, I was completely floored by Beasts of the Southern Wild, the debut feature by young American director, Benh Zeitlin. This is a film that has everything: consummate story-telling, great performances from a largely non-professional group of actors, drama, pathos, fantasy, and breathtaking cinematography.
What’s there not to like? Well, it is sad film – not in a weepy, superficial sense, but in way that seems to bore down into the subconcious, leaving one psychically drained. See the movie and you’ll know what I mean.
The film is dominated by the performance of six-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis, who plays Hushpuppy, a tomboy with an explosive head of hair, who lives with her Daddy on a (fictional) island nicknamed the Bathtub, off the coast of Louisiana. Hushpuppy’s daily life is dirt-poor, but she has a hyperactive imagination. She conducts conversations with her missing Mama, whom we assume is dead or gone forever.
She is profoundly effected by her teacher’s stories of prehistoric times, when huge extinct beasts, the aurochs, ruled the earth. With climate change set to melt the icecap and raise the oceans, she imagines the aurochs thawing from the ice and coming to resume their dominion. Throughout the film we see these beasts plodding closer, lurking in the background, closing in on the human settlement.
Hushpuppy’s daddy, Wink, is an angry, excitable man who drinks too much, and suffers from a heart condition. He tries to toughen Hushpuppy up for those days when he is no longer around, but the apocalypse arrives sooner than anticipated, in the form of a Katrina-type hurricane that leaves the Bathtub a dying, waterlogged ruin.
Hushpuppy, Wink and the other surving residents, get set to fight for their lives and their drowned island. The rescue teams that come from the mainland are treated like alien invaders, their shelters seen as concentration camps. In this extreme reaction, we glimpse a terrible truth about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: the way that poor communities would not be restored, but lost forever.
The only desire that the islanders have is to get back to the Bathtub and reassert their existence, which seems almost organically linked to this sodden piece of dirt. On the way back, Hushpuppy and her friends take a surreal detour that looks like it was conceived by David Lynch, where she encounters a woman who might just possibly be her Mama.
No description can convey the vividness of those scenes where the islanders throw a party, or when the hurricane bears down on the community. The story has a crackling energy, propelled by a musical score composed by Dan Romer and director, Benh Zeitlin. The script, written by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar, is delivered in a patois some will find challenging, although it only seems to add grit to the story.
It is no small feat to get first class performances from non-professional actors. Nadine Labaki certainly didn’t achieve this in Where Do We Go Now?, where her amateurs are uniformly wooden.
Zeitlin, however, has given us a film of staggering originality, in which everyone performs as though they were born for the stage. Dwight Henry, who plays Wink, was running a bakery in Montegut, Louisiana, when he got the idea of auditioning. Quvenzhané Wallis was five years old when she secured the lead role, one of the decisive factors being her ability to burp on demand. It should be the start of a stellar career. But whatever comes next for Zeitlin or his cast, Beasts of the Southern Wild will be hard act to follow.
Beasts of the Southern Wild, USA, rated PG – 13, 93 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, September 15, 2012