New to DVD: Benh Zeitlin’s striking New Orleans odyssey.
Beasts of the Southern Wild emerged as last year’s indie darling of the film festival circuit. Fans praised the rich aesthetic of Malick-like imagery, the use of fable and fiction to explore our ecological fate in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and the captivating performances given by a cast of largely unprofessional actors. Critics poked at its supposed self-righteousness, the scattered narrative, and the clichéd romanticism of assuming spiritual depth in a poverty-stricken world.
The story follows our narrator, steadfast whippersnapper Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), and her inebriate but equally tenacious father, Wink (Dwight Henry). Together they face the impending threat of flooding in their remote bayou in southern Louisiana, known as “The Bathtub”. After a devastating storm, Hushpuppy, Wink, and the peripheral cast of locals struggle to cope with the further blow to their ramshackle surroundings. We watch as their ties with each other and their community is strengthened through a stubborn refusal to leave, despite the eventual attempt of the authorities to evacuate them to a sterile emergency centre. The story is coloured with images of the “Auroch”, a mythical creature not unlike a giant warthog, that Hushpuppy believes has been set free with the melting of the polar ice caps.
Beasts is director Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature, made in collaboration with New Orleans-based artists’ collective, Court 13. His filmmaking ethos draws inspiration from the anthropological and observational style of cinéma vérité, evident in the handheld camerawork and jolting close-ups. When combined with rundown shacks, an abundance of trash, a straggle of animals, and the anything-goes-as-long-as-it-floats boats that make up the eclectic production design, this draws the viewer into a landscape that is as exotic as it is desperate.
The sweeping orchestral score (composed by Zeitlin and Dan Romer) carries a lively spell, along with sound effects that mirror our senses in the natural world. Early on in the film, the resounding cracks of thunder are paired with a glacial collapse, followed by one of the most visceral rain tracks I’ve ever experienced in a theatre; further intensified only by the wild hollers of Wink avenging the storm gods with his shotgun. Technically speaking, Beasts is all charm and pure cinematic energy.
The acting is remarkable. Wallis is now the youngest person to receive a Best Actress nomination at the Academy Awards thanks to her on-screen charisma and magnetism. Henry earns his keep as the rogue father whom we both loathe and pity for his unruly temperament and hapless existence. Gina Montana, who plays Hushpuppy’s teacher, fulfills the strong, independent woman archetype, but she’s largely a plot device for the introduction of Aurochs. The rest of the community is effectively a ragtag troupe of washed-up country folk, but they fit the job of the supportive collective just fine.
So far this is the consensus. Commentators’ opinions are divided where the narrative is concerned. It gets shaky when our heroes escape from the hospital, or the “fish tank without water,” as Hushpuppy calls it. The aid workers and hospital staff are given little sympathy; they assert their authority with no apparent warmth. However, when interpreted through the context of the story, we see them as Hushpuppy and Wink would, as nameless bullies we fear and resent for stripping us of our choices and leaving us helpless. When viewed this way, it becomes an exploration in the themes of loss and identity rather than a filmmaker’s political statement on modern medicine and aid.
From there the narrative spreads further still when Hushpuppy and her unkempt gang venture out in search of her mother, the absence of whom we suspect is the sentiment behind her father’s alcoholism. By the time the Aurochs show up you should have realised we’re dealing with the erratic surrealism of a child’s imagination. Scattered though it may seem, the story fits when you remember who’s telling it.
And as for the naïve romanticism Beasts reportedly preaches, I would say that any idealism and mystique it exploits comes from the hardened spirit of a child whose refuge against the world is a cardboard “cave”, who has dealt with more than any person should in one lifetime. She puts on a brave face and lets out a defiant scream (which partly won her the role in the first place), but she’s not deluded by her circumstances. And surely, neither are we.
When I reflect on my first viewing of Beasts at The Civic in Auckland, I remember leaving with the same lingering satisfaction you get from a well-told fable. Through the eyes of the bolshy Hushpuppy I was bewitched by a curiously profound and often clever take on a dismal reality. Above all, what struck me about the film was its depiction, both visually and thematically, of balance in nature. Like Hushpuppy I was reminded that, giant warthogs and all, we are but a “little piece in a big, big universe. And that makes things right.”
DVD Info + Special Features
Region 4 PAL
1.78:1 Aspect Ratio (16:9)
No special features
Also available on Blu-Ray
 In a recent article, Zeitlin described how he directed the camera as he would an actor, urging cinematographer Ben Richardson to react to the story world in the same way as Hushpuppy by responding spontaneously and never pre-empting the action.