"When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything
that made me flying around in little pieces."
We're in the midst of an era of cinematic commonality, as it seems that all films nowadays are prequels, sequels, re-imaginings or adaptations. That's why it's all the more impressive when one comes around that has something new to express. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD is that film*. It is loaded with fresh faces and bright realization.
*I do realize that BEASTS is technically based off of a play, but it's one that only had one act, with minimal scenes.
The story takes place in an unknown location called the Bathtub (although it may as well be New Orleans). A six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy lives with her father, Wink. These two and others reside in dilapidated housing just south of a massive levee. This embankment protects the members of an unnamed city (they're called drylanders in the film), while making life precarious for those living outside of the protective barrier. If you can get past the lack of running water, an overt lack of cleanliness, and the impending doom of being flooded, then the shanties make up a pretty nice community. What they lack in supposed every day essentials, they more than make up with spirit and boisterous reveling. The opening scenes depict such a celebration, with Hushpuppy sprinting throught the streets with fireworks in tow. She says it best: "The Bathub has more holidays than the rest of the world."
This exhuberance, although adorable, does little to mask the harsh reality of their situation. They are poor, they struggle for food, and they live in structures that seem like they could be blown over with but a breath. Hushpuppy attends school with other children in her state. During one session, their teacher--through the tattoos on her legs--tells the students an account of aurochs, mythical creatures who used to walk the earth before succumbing to the deep freeze of the ice age.
When Wink falls ill, the narrative jumps to something more fantastical, yet strangely, never seemingly out of the realm of possibility. The icecaps collapse, and a drift of aurochs emerge from the glaze, slogging towards an evitable meeting with Hushpuppy. Their march coincides with the intervention of the drylanders into the Bathtub.
BEASTS is directed by Benh Zeitlin. His film is a crowning achievement of what can be accomplished behind the camera. A fact made even more remarkable with the knowledge that this is his first venture. Somehow he has captured all of the wonder and allure that has been missing in motion pictures and woven it into one marvelous story. Zeitlin also co-wrote and co-scored the feature. The music in particular stands out.
BEASTS is narrated by Hushpuppy, herself. She gushes exquisitely on the events around her, making the mere mundane sound like the most important thing in the world. Her words are far beyond her fledgling years, instead sounding like she's lived a dozen lives, each sentence lined with poetic elegance. She and her father have a good relationship, one that's sometimes filled with isolation and punishing techniques. Wink at many times seems to be a reluctant father. His life before kids was filled with love--that for his wife, and for the bottle. When his missus "swam away," Wink does his best to raise his daughter. His lessons teach an end game of survival--he knowing best what it takes to endure in such a harsh environment.
Wink is played by Dwight Harris, a non-actor. He has said that acting is assuredly not in his future, rather wanting to focus his time on his wife and five children, as well as a local pastry shop which he owns. He apparently had to be convinced by BEASTS producers to join the cast during the middle of the night due to his baking schedule.
Quvenzhané Wallis stars in the lead role, and simply put, she is a marvel. Children actors are a tricky bunch to pinpoint. Is their work that good, or is their precociousness simply a by-product of being young and inexperienced? She was seven-years-old when BEASTS was filmed, and like Harris, she had never acted before, yet, Wallis commands the lens. She seems to have an old soul. At once being believable enough to take care of herself when her ailing father goes missing, and naïve to think that a simple cardboard box will protect her from fire.
Hushpuppy has an uncanny connection to the universe. She's seen many times exploring silently, finding the creatures that live among her and her father. Delicately, she places her head down to their chests and listens intently to the heartbeat that emanates from within. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD is a rare gem; a wonderful depiction of love and fragility. It will make you weep, as well as stand up with resounding acclaim. Its heartbeat continues to resonate. It's a pulse that will stay with you for a very long time.