At the New Zealand International Film Festival, Benh Zeitlin’s post-Katrina folk tale sweeps us away.
A singular piece of cinema, Benh Zeitlin’s bewildering Beasts of the Southern Wild exhibits an array of recognisable thematic and visual touchstones yet remains a work all its own. An arresting blend of the fantastic and the grounded, Beasts presents as an un-manicured folktale for those on the fringes.
Set amidst actual post-Katrina detritus in a fictional ‘South of the levees’ water-bounded New Orleans community—‘the Bathtub’—the film’s narrative action unfurls from the perspective of its diminutive protagonist, six-year-old Hushpuppy (young newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis). Clinging, with her father, to a primal existence outside of the mainstream, Hushpuppy—bringing to bear a child’s imagination, tempered by harsh living conditions—converts parallel familial and environmental dooms into an existential struggle for sense of self and place. A struggle at once both highly personal and archetypal.
In such primitive conditions as they live, mundane acts like feeding oneself or sheltering through a storm become abnormally heightened experiences, unfettered and raw. Buildings threaten collapse at any time, wood splintering like the backs of the crabs Hushpuppy learns the rip apart with her hands. The innards of drowned, picked apart animals litter the ground, while the adults in the picture seem as unpredictable and prone to extremes as the weather.
For a film in danger of exploding out into its many fragmented thematic directions, Beasts is surprisingly well anchored by both its visceral (physical and social) setting, and the central performances of Wallis and (similarly non-professional) Dwight Henry, who plays her emphatic father Link. These two actors evince truth with every interaction; joyous, or fraught, or banal. Indeed, there are scenes where the emotional intensity registers on Wallis’s face to such a degree that you begin to wonder about the ethics of putting someone so young in such a vulnerable position. And despite clear bouts of fantasy—which are never explicitly treated as such—the shooting and aesthetic quality of the film remain undeniably grounded in the vital mud and water of coastal Louisiana.
Beasts’ characters and community ring true in many ways while simultaneously standing out for meritorious reasons. This band of misfits is neither defined nor gated by race, gender, or age. Rather they are real people who share an ethos of direct connectedness to the land (and sea). As I watched a plethora of disconnected and ostensibly unrelated references unfolded before me. First on a strange and unexpected list was The Lion King(!?), both films sharing that aforementioned thematic sense of connectedness: all things taking their place in the broader ecosystem. Speaking of which, the tumultuous global-local ecological state of play conjures Gore environmentalist vehicle An Inconvenient Truth. The fierce, almost desperate determination of many Bathtub residents to resist their inevitable physical relocation speaks to the same relationship of identity to physical environs explored in Franny Armstrong’s moving 2002 documentary Drowned Out, which followed the fight of a village to save their ancestral riverside land from intentional flooding as a side consequence of a large dam project in central India. Visually, Beasts shares a narrow similarity to infamous mid-90s Kevin Costner travesty Waterworld, each film bounded on every side by water—both live giving and life taking—with physical structures that have a kind of post-apocalyptic aesthetic quality. Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are is an obvious narrative touchpoint for child’s eye view, whereas the almost chaptered structure and epic story leanings calls to mind the Coens’ (loose) adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and the fact that the story had its genesis on the stage. But if Beasts shares similarities with each of these films, you would not say that it is actually like any of them. Writer-director Zeitlin, with such a richly layered first film, maintains a cohesive, idiosyncratic cinematic experience promising a worthwhile filmmaking career in the making.