Cinema Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild

DIR: Benh Zeitlin • WRI: Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin • PRO: Michael Gottwald, Josh Penn • DOP: Ben Richardson • ED: Crockett Doob, Affonso Gonçalves • DES: Alex DiGerlando  • CAST:   Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Lowell Landes

Little Hushpuppy lives with her father, Wink, in a community separated from the industrialised mainland. The levee wall isolates those living in Hushpuppy’s homeland, called The Bathtub. She learns about global warming, melting ice-caps and aurochs (prehistoric creatures related to cattle but looking like boars). A storm threatens to destroy the Bathtub, Hushpuppy’s home and the world she knows.

This wonderful but peculiar film was a hit at festivals, winning awards at both Sundance and Cannes this year. It sounds like the plot of a fantasy novel for children and has the potential to be preachy about environmental concerns and mawkish or sentimental with the father-daughter relationship providing its emotional core, but it avoids both.

The Bathtub is a very strange environment in which to live. Its inhabitants catch their own food in the sea or raise it in their gardens. Their homes seem like makeshift shacks. Hushpuppy’s own ‘house’ is a mobile home caught in a tree, probably from a previous storm. The setting imbues the film with a strangeness that viewers looking for something different will enjoy; others will find it difficult to take. The film’s major weakness perhaps is its failure to establish the connection of the community to this weird place. Its people gather together to celebrate frequently, but what they’re celebrating remains a mystery.

Wink raises his daughter and teaches her how to survive in The Bathtub. Dwight Henry plays Wink as a tough man, addressing his daughter as ‘man’, telling her that she will be the ‘king’. Early in the film, Hushpuppy waits for her father. She realises that she will have to eat her own pets if he does not return. They argue when he eventually returns. Their fraught relationship again makes one wonder why they want to stay in such a miserable place.

Quvenzhané Wallis was five years old when the filmmakers cast her as Hushpuppy. Her piercing scream and ability to burp as desired apparently made her suitable. Her performance is extraordinary, as her cute face registers the shock, awe, pain and fear of the situations that occur. Her detached voiceover plays like a narration in Terrence Malick film. Cleverly written, her observations never comes across as something a child wouldn’t say, instead sounding like the moral of an oft-told tale, perhaps by Miss Bathsheba, who provides medicine and warns of the dangers posed by global warming and melting icecaps.

Made by a film collective called Court 13, Beasts of the Southern Wild is the first feature film by director Benh Zeitlin and its stars. Beautifully shot on 16 mm, it features an excellent score by Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin. Despite its low budget, the filmmakers achieve a visual style that complements this contemporary fable, a film that defies expectations and presents something weird, unusual and enjoyably different.

John Moran

Rated 12A (see IFCO website for details)
93 mins

Beasts of the Southern Wild is released on 19th October 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild –  Official Website

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