Every January, the Sundance Film Festival introduces first-time actors, writers and directors, initially to festival goers, and later, other film festivals and, if they’re fortunate enough for their film to secure a distributor, mainstream, general audiences.
Too often, however, hyperbole is the norm, not the exception. Filmmakers are praised for their unique vision and actors for their depth and range. Luckily, hyperbole is a non-issue when it comes to writer-director Benh Zeitlin’s feature-length debut, Beasts of the Southern Wild, a startlingly original, singularly poignant magical realist/allegorical drama Zeitlin shot on location in Louisiana on a modest budget with non-actors.
Beasts of the Southern Wild centers on Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis, a minor revelation), a six-year-old inhabitant of the Bathtub, a fictionalized town off the coast of Louisiana, and her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), a hard-drinking, possibly alcoholic man who may or may be suffering from a terminal illness.
Told through Hushpuppy’s point-of-view, often via poetically crafted voiceover narration and arresting visual images that give us insight into Hushpuppy’s magically attuned worldview, Beasts of the Southern Wild doesn’t follow a traditional three-act structure. It’s far more observational than a typically rigid three-act structure allows.
Zeitlin focuses on Hushpuppy’s hardscrabble life, often lived alone or in the company of her family’s domesticated animals or occasionally at what appears to be a non-traditional school or makeshift daycare center where an older woman, Miss Bathsheeba (Gina Montana), imparts important life lessons.
Hushpuppy’s relationship with her father is far from ideal. Prone to temperamental outbursts, Wink constantly cajoles Hushpuppy to fend for herself, presumably as part of an unspoken plan to prepare Hushpuppy for the harsh realities of life, including the illness that will likely leave Hushpuppy an orphan.
Hushpuppy longs for her mother, a woman she doesn’t remember, a woman who abandoned Hushpuppy and Wink when life in the Bathtub became too difficult to bear. Hushpuppy copes with the material and emotional deprivation of her daily life through an active fantasy life, imagining her mother accompanying her at a meal. Food and meals are more than just part of a daily routine. They become rituals, embodying the spiritual connection between Hushpuppy, her father, and the other inhabitants of the Bathtub and the world around them.
That world tends to treat the Bathtub and its inhabitants badly, even cruelly at times. Outcasts from the outside world, the inhabitants of the Bathtub build their homes out of the outside world’s detritus. And when a Katrina-like storm hits, forcing the inhabitants of the Bathtub to flee to higher ground, Wink and a handful of others refuse to leave. When, as expected, the government appears, offering material aid, they refuse assistance, preferring to live freely, if poorly.
It’s when the government arrives that Zeitlin almost loses moviegoers. Wink and the others’ stubbornness seems less than noble; it seems pathological. Hushpuppy’s presence and, more importantly, her point-of-view, suggests, however, that since we’re experiencing the world through her eyes, we’re seeing an incomplete, compromised version of the world, a world where the motivations of adults are, for Hushpuppy and by extension, the audience, unknowable.
Zeitlin interweaves a far more overt magical realist/allegorical element: prehistoric animals (called “aurochs” in the credits) that escape from their eons-old ice prisons, wend their way toward the Bathtub and Hushpuppy, leaving destruction in their wake. The aurochs represent an unfettered nature responding to human-made ecological devastation and, of course, climate change. But it’s Hushpuppy and her resilience and optimism (however, unfounded) that offers the inhabitants of the Bathtub, including her father, hope or a semblance of hope, all of it earned.