Who knew that social issues such as poverty and flooding could be explored in film with such — magic. Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild gives a folk-tale quality to what is essentially post-Katrina New Orleans.
At its core, “Beasts” tells a story of survival, about what it takes to make it in a world in which you inherit hardship and challenge. The story follows a feisty young girl named Hushpuppy and her sick but self-determined father after their community suffers a flood of apocalyptic proportions. Together they must come to terms with the tough road that lies ahead.
Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) narrates this tale, mostly trying to make sense of her place in her community and the greater world. There’s an abundance of creatures in this story, from crawfish and crabs to gators and oh yes, giant horned hogs called aurochs: mythical creatures released from the melted polar ice caps that leave destruction in their wake.
Both the script and consequently Hushpuppy are preoccupied with the connectedness of all living creatures, and in a survival story you get both the good and the bad, whether it’s Hushpuppy learning how to bust open a crab for food all by herself or how the floods have salted up all the fresh water and started to kill off animal populations. Many voiceover transitional shots bring us an array of crustaceans as well as a sense of the circle of life not this powerful since The Lion King (and needless to say without the need for a rousing musical number).
Nature is a character oft forgotten in film, but it’s a huge player in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Most of us live our lives with what’s necessary to stave off nature and her dangers, but in Louisiana Gulf communities, there’s only so much danger that be fended off.
Hushpuppy and her daddy, Wink (Dwight Henry), live in “The Bathtub,” a stretch of land below the levees and in danger of floods. The reality of the situation in New Orleans is that the government had to build the levees somewhere, and so the they only protect some of the communities and The Bathtub isn’t one of them. Although The Bathtub is not a real place, communities like it do in fact exist.
Hushpuppy and Wink live in adjacent shanty houses, which says everything about the nature of their relationship, or at least Wink’s parenting techniques, which become a major focus as the story unfolds. Hushpuppy’s world is turned upside-down when both personal and environmental diaster hit all at once. After telling her daddy she wishes he was dead, the great storm begins and she discovers that he has grown incredibly sick
The power of the flood forces many residents to leave, but Wink insists on being resilient, both in terms of his condition and staying home. As he teaches Hushpuppy to survive, he does so knowing he might not be there for her. It’s a realization Hushpuppy has avoided, as she already feels the psychological sting of her mother’s absence, believing she is a beautiful woman of legend who simply swam away when Hushpuppy was born.
The strains of this father-daughter relationship comprise most of the drama, so the scale of the film usually remains intimate. Hushpuppy believe she has come this far in life because she is so close with her father and he does so much for her, but Wink has done everything he can to make Hushpuppy self-sufficient, inadvertently making her feel as if she needs him. As their relationship comes to a boiling point, both must accept difficult truths.
In the background are the herds of aurochs, which put this familial drama into a greater context and help create the sense of perspective Zeitlin and cowriter Lucy Alibar wish to leave the audience with. The script tugs back and forth with ideas of survival and self-preservation versus the natural order of things. The photography on the film is vivid and gritty, with Zeitlin mostly opting for handheld shots. His film absolutely captures the beauty in such a raw and devastated landscape, and the choice to spin the story into a folk take certainly amplifies the desired effect.
The direction and low camera angles also help bring us into Hushpuppy’s head, as this is unquestionably her story. We see the world of the film with her sense of wonder and struggle, and it’s not easy to empathize with an eight-year-old. Considering this is a film for adults told through the eyes of a child, it’s an important accomplishment.
The focus on the Hushpuppy-Wink relationship takes a lot of the attention off the supporting characters. There are too many considering they are largely unmemorable and have minimal impact on the story and they pique our curiosity despite the film’s lack of follow-through. The emphasis on the core relationship also leads to several interactions between our two leads that tread over the same territory, but at the same time it makes for an incredibly strong payoff in the film’s final scenes.
If nothing else, Beasts of the Southern Wild will charm with its distinctiveness, the raw but magical nature of its setting and story. Few films can boast both the traits of an imaginative folk tale and the up-close feel of a documentary. As such, the film looks so totally real yet feels as if it takes place in a whole other world far, far away from our own. For an independent film to cover that wide of a scope while telling such an intimate story, Zeitlin and crew and their film deserves a great deal of attention and praise.