I’m been stretching my memory for several days now, and I think I can accurately report that I’ve never seen a movie quite like Beasts of the Southern Wild. Movie fans who’ve had happier experiences than me when it comes to willfully odd, sparely abstract art may be able to rapidly contradict me, citing some effete French feature or understated artifact of early American independent film that is the clear antecedent to director Benh Zeitlin’s feature debut. If so, I’ll humbly acquiesce without protest. It doesn’t matter all that much. What does matter is the startling impact of the film and the smoky tendrils of remembered experience that trail the experience of seeing it. The film is a coming-of-age mini-saga flavored with an especially nihilistic form of magical realism that was cooked up in a rich and earthy Louisiana roux. It is beautiful in its resonant human tragedy and tragic in its fragile, battered beauty.
The film follows a six-year-old girl who everyone calls Hushpuppy, played by Quvenzhané Wallis, as she lives a squalid, impoverished existence on an island off of Louisiana’s Gulf Coast. Referred to by its residents as “The Bathtub,” it is an expanse of junk, nothingness and fierce pride of place. The locals take to their modest existence not with self-pity but instead a bracing satisfaction and certainty of self. The tone of Zeitlin’s film follows suit, avoiding any temptation to approach the characters with judgement or condescension. Adapted with Lucy Alibar from her one-act play Juicy and Delicious, the screenplay is a feast of unexpected emotional detail: citizens of the Bathtub interacting with the raucous ease that comes from years of trusting togetherness, people finding unabashed joy in the abundance they can create by simply throwing nets into the salty water or Hushpuppy listening intently to the heartbeats of the animals around her, as if trying to reassure herself that there is indeed life at play in this haunted terrain. Through this concentrated world-building, Zeitlin and his collaborators (a collective dubbed Court 13) make certain that it is spiritually devastating when the Bathtub is crushed by a mammoth storm, unnamed but carrying unmistakable echoes of Hurricane Katrina. It’s not rickety shacks that are endangered, but a wooly, imperfect community.
It is the mixture of the grounded with the fanciful that gives Beasts its weight and grace. Hushpuppy surveys the world around her with a scabbed wisdom beyond her years, but fully in line with her station. She’s not precocious, merely able to tap into simple but poetic profundities that reflect the damage she’s witnessed, even been an unwitting participant in. She has a relationship with her father, played with ferocious instinctual skill by Dwight Henry, that is equal parts distance and affection. The film’s opening sequence–essentially a prologue–sets the tone perfectly with a narrated introductory montage that emphasizes mood and emotional insight over a rigidity of explanation. This will not be a film for linear thinking, Zeitlin seems to say, but instead one of openness and existential surprise. Truth can come in many forms, even through the inclusion of a mythic marauding mammal that is the only feasible way to thoroughly convey the reservoirs of strength within one little girl.
Beasts of the Southern Wild cracks its pulsing heart open in distinctive and unexpected ways, finding poignancy in a dankly garish floating brothel that could have been dreamed up by David Lynch while restlessly sleeping off some tainted crayfish, for example. At times it seems to be engaging in a quest within itself, one that Zeitlin proves to be strikingly adept at tracking. It is tremendous debut and a wonderful film, mostly because it demonstrates that there are multiple passageways to the truth. It just take a little invention and daring to explore them all.