Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
Beasts of the Southern Wild (USA) Directed by Benh Zeitlin Written by Benh Zeitlin; Lucy Alibar Starring Quvenzhane’ Wallis; Dwight Henry; Levy Easterly; Gina Montana
Not everything making a splash at Sundance turns out to be worthy of the attendant acclaim. The days when the biggest thing at the festival automatically translated into critical and/or commercial success have certainly long since past (if, of course, they existed at all in the first place). Beasts of the Southern Wild won the grand prize at Sundance, and then went on to win the Camera d’Or at Cannes and the Audience Award in L.A., and thankfully it actually lives up to all the hype.
On a budget of 1.8 million, first time feature director Ben Zeitlin, who co-wrote the screenplay with Lucy Alibar (based on her one act play Juicy and Delicious), creates a sumptuous, cinematic fable about a group of forgotten, off-the-grid Louisiana residents before and after a traumatic weather event. The son of 60s folklorists and part of an art collective called Court 13 that he began at his alma mater Weslyan University and eventually transferred to New Orleans, Zeitlin expands a 2006 short he did called Glory At Sea, which mined similar material, but was more specifically focused on Katrina.
The film is set in Montague Louisiana (shooting in Terrebone LA) in a fictional Mississippi Delta Bayou area referred to by the characters in the film as “The Bathtub.” In reality Katrina did not immediately affect the people of this particular region in the same way that Rita did, and the model for this group of residents was several fishing communities in Southern Louisiana whose land has been disappearing due to the weather and the resulting changes in environment. The fact that the BP oil spill took place during the first day of principal photography added another element to the proceedings.
Mostly financed by a grant from the non-profit foundation Cinereach (the first film they funded), whose derived proceeds will go back into the fund to assist other film-makers (the film-makers themselves retain profit points), the reported ethos of the Zeitlin led collective is an interesting one - a focus on making films that consider the community as partner, absorbing the location where they are filming into the process, and also organically incorporating real-life elements of the pre-production/production as part of their developing on-screen story.
Situated in their abandoned gas station offices, the production immersed themselves in the area, getting to know local residents, their customs and way of life (Zeitlin himself moved there in 2008). After seeing some 3,500 young girls ages 6-12, they focused on five year old Quvenzhane’ “Zanie” Wallis to play the film’s indomitable six year old hero Hushpuppy. Across the street from their casting offices was a small restaurant where the filmmakers would eat breakfast and lunch. It was there they met the owner, Dwight Henry, who would eventually play Wink, Hushpuppy’s father.
There was a three month long work-shopping/rehearsal period that involved acting coaches for the cast, and late night sessions between director Zeitlin and actor Henry, while he baked in the kitchen of his new restaurant. The art department created the often surrealistic set design on location; animal trainers worked with all sorts of species to produce desired effects. At one point, Zeitin’s truck blew up and it was eventually used to build the car/boat in the film. Eschewing trailers, the eighty person crew roomed together on bunk beds and in sleeping bags.
The tone poem of a story is funneled through the fanciful perceptions of the young lead/narrator, and the film is at once a dark fairy tale filled with magical realism and a gritty slice-of-life drama. There are elements that seem flown in from Michel Gondry’s Where the Wild Things Are - utilizing real pigs as prehistoric aurochs (bisons) to achieve effects that would seem insanely ambitious for a low budget indie, though these sequences are employed sparingly with a slow build that increases the fantastical quotient as it goes. The film has great ambition, and while it may not live up to all it strives for, it does achieve moments of highly charged emotion as exquisitely rendered as any in recent memory.
There is throughout a kind of myth building going on that has ties to the disconnected backwater nature of the environs; the Cajun/Creole roots of many of the residents; and the role fantasy plays in the lives of small children everywhere. Hushpuppy has fashioned a set of beliefs and ideas about the world based on what she has managed to cull through the not so reliable information imparted to her by her mentally unstable, superstitious, alcoholic father, Wink; members of her young peer group; and other marginal local residents she comes in contact with on a regular basis. She attends “school” in a shack with a kind but seemingly untrained teacher, and doesn’t seem to have ready access to media or books of any sort.
On the surface, Hushpuppy’s life is something of a nightmare. Her unpredictable, volatile, and physically unwell father feeds her by grilling chickens they raise or seafood he catches, but he inhabits a separate dilapidated shack, meaning Hushpuppy spends long hours by herself, with only her imagination to keep her company. She communes with nature, interacting with the animals who live among them (and onto whom she interposes any number of human qualities), but is also subject to a host of dangers she is obviously too young to inure herself against. Her mythos surrounds sadly sweet notions about a mother who left them when she was a baby, and her idea of herself as a fierce warrior prepared to fight against all that would injure and/or frighten her. “Who’s the man?” Wink regularly shouts at her. “I’m the man,” Hushpuppy answers, with all the ferocity she can muster, though she is a tiny thing living in a frighteningly wild world chock full of threats real and imagined.
Technically, the film’s visuals (shot on super 16mm by newcomer Ben Richardson) are inspired - artful and cinematic, using focus, hand-helds, and natural light to capture a simultaneously realistic and im-pressionistic feel. A host of beautiful images emerges, including a memorably magical sequence with flaring fireworks bursting with light as the residents run around during an outdoor party. The production design is like something out of a post apocalyptic sci-fi film, with structures and equipment pieced together with discarded scrap. The levees that seal this community in, and the towering oil rigs looming in the distance from an unnamed locale (theoretically New Orleans), contribute to furthering the feeling of being in a slightly off kilter world, akin to Jean Pierre Juenuet’s City of Lost Children or Delicatessen.
Though Zeitlin paints a dutifully bleak portrait of the surroundings and is careful to relay the details of Hushpuppy’s far less than ideal living conditions, the film’s biggest weakness (assuming one accepts the inherent disjointed messiness of the plot) is the somewhat cartoonish portrayal of a group of happy poor people engaged in a Bacchannalian celebration that seems to be related to a separatist ethos that in this situation amounts to an end of the world “fuck it”.
The group of misfits is of mixed race, but there is something decidedly off-putting about educated, rich, white twenty-somethings making a film about poverty stricken lives they haven’t and never will live, and this fact cannot be denied or dismissed. Despite the seemingly good intentions, there is something smacking of classicism and co-opted source material that feels vaguely exploitative, especially because the characters as a whole are rendered all the more impotent and ridiculous due to the gluttonous frivolity and general drunkenness they resort to in the face of obvious disaster.
True, this may be part of the very point - that only the slightly deranged and completely disenfranchised would remain in any area under the kind of unlivable conditions on display, and yes there are ideas being put forth about the importance of community outweighing material wealth. In fact, there is some inherent commentary in depicting wakes/funerals that are intended to be joyful celebrations as opposed to mournful events. There are some realistic scenes involving a shelter/hospital and one (not entirely successfully realized) bit that has members of the group trying to improve their situation with an act of eco-terrorism, and to some extent these more grounded moments mitigate the fairy tale nature of the story. However, the wide gulf between the film-makers and their subjects exists nonetheless, and needs to be mentioned in relation to this portrait.
With that said, Beasts ultimately overcomes these relatively minor criticisms, due mainly to the obvious rigidity of craft and overall sense of purpose at play. The performances from the non-professionals waver slightly (especially with some of the bit characters), but on the whole are solid and clearly fully work-shopped. The two leads are, in places, stunning - no short order regardless of budget or the experience level of those involved (more impressive from a first time director though), though the heart and soul of the piece rests in the very capable hands of young Miss Wallis, whose courageous and emotionally open performance never fails to move us.