Beasts of the Southern Wild
Beautiful, wistful, ethereal; an indictment of our planet’s failing environmentalism; an extraordinary cast of newcomers. I passed up two opportunities to see this film (including opening night at the NZ Film Festival) but when I finally watched it, I was completely floored. Here’s what all the fuss is about.
Young American writer/director Benh Zeitlin took his first feature to Sundance and Cannes where it was ecstatically received and applauded as visionary filmmaking. They compared him (at age 30, and with a mere three short films under his belt) to legendary director Terrence Mallick. In Beasts Zeitlin cast a tiny, feisty five year old with preternatural charisma and courage, an incredible afro and the Icelandic volcano of names (here’s hoping Quvenzhane Wallis is nominated for an Oscar!). So enchanted was he by her apparent abilities, Zeitlin then rewrote the story to give her a central role, transposing it from a strange comedy into searing drama territory.
Wallis plays Hushpuppy, a self-contained ragamuffin living on the wrong side of the levies in Louisiana swamplands. When a major hurricane hits her ramshackle environment, she is forced to fight for survival. Her strange community consists of a loving but unreliable father (an equally startling debut by non-actor Dwight Henry) and a bunch of drunken but well-meaning neighbours. Hushpuppy sets off of an adventure which is surprising for its being desperately moving and enthralling at every turn.
So exquisite is this film it’s difficult to rein in the hyperbole. It’s a lesson in self-sustainability and simple communal living with astonishing performances in every scene. The squalid surrounds and snake-infested waters are countered by beautiful photography and fantastic music (also composed by the justifiably lauded Zeitlin).
The only thing to say by way of Serious Warning is: sit far back in the cinema. The shaky-cam lost Beasts some admirers at festival viewings, and motion sickness would certainly ruin what is otherwise guaranteed to be a magical experience.