Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, a mid-year indie you’ll be hearing plenty more about throughout the year — thanks in no small part to its award-winning runs at both Sundance and Cannes — is almost assuredly going to stand, at the end of the day, as one of the year’s most unique and vital cinematic visions. This is another recent directorial debut, after things like Martha Marcy May Marlene and The Snowtown Murders, that exhibits a level of assurance for a first-time feature-length filmmaker that borders on frightening.
The separating factor of this particular film is the robust emotion that works beautifully in tandem with the persuasive stylistic approach. The key to the film, like the great Days of Heaven — and you will be reminded of Terrence Malick a lot here — is the point of view. The combination of Ben Richardson’s dynamic cinematography and the emphatically gorgeous original score — co-authored by Dan Romer and Zeitlin himself — bring us into the worldview of 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) with such seamless grace that we not only see what she sees, but verifiably feel every atom of her mouth-agape innocence as well.
And that’s to say nothing of the Wallis performance, which is so eerily lived-in it’s nearly impossible to fathom that she was only six at the time of filming. While she’s a native of the film’s setting, she walks through the haunted grounds of it — a cut-off, backwater community called The Bathtub, where the uniform profession of the inhabitants is survival at all costs — as any still-stainless child might, with a sense of constant awe and amazement. When she pauses to minutely observe the nature around her — a crawling bug here, a gaunt twig there — the sensation that’s produced is remarkable. We’re peeking in on her as she discovers the world, and it reminds us what it’s like to look at things not with our high-functioning brains, but with a spontaneous, free-flowing impressionism.
We witness this in the way she interacts with the people around her, too. When we contemplate her fiery father, Wink (Dwight Henry), drinking the night away with his compadres after a day of hard-edged exertion, we entertain the notion that he’s neglecting Hushpuppy — it’s not safe for him to let her roam these fields alone, nor is it responsible, perhaps, to consistently surround her with a herd of loud, alcohol-infused adults. But it’s what Hushpuppy sees in addition to all of this — the chipped-tooth smiles, the stomping passion, the on-top-of-the-world spirit of the outcast — that’s indispensable. If her bookish education is understandably limited, she’s getting an education in feeling that money simply can’t buy.
But the film’s screenplay, written by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar, is too mindful to reduce Hushpuppy’s trajectory to a mere recognition of elation. While the people of The Bathtub are proudly ill-fitted for any other type of lifestyle, their chosen path is certainly not without its savage drawbacks — primarily the fact that, due to recurring environmental complications, it may only be days before the homegrown territory ceases to exist. Playing a crucial part, too, are the creatures that give the film its title, and though their presence may prove a bit too over-baked for some, they represented, for me, a necessary opposing force to The Bathtub’s task-less, booze-filled life-embracing. Are these people any more human than the livestock they live amongst?
If Wallis’s performance is riveting for its blank-slate authenticity, the achievement of Henry — who was casted, mind-bogglingly, after being spotted working as a baker near the site of filming in southern Louisiana — is that his eyes communicate all the prejudices and premeditated notions he’s gathered throughout his formidable lifetime. When he fails to keep a proper eye on Hushpuppy, or when he insists on saving the land that seems so hellbent on erasing his existence, Henry explains himself not only with his words, but with the burning desperation with which he says them — with the spit that flies out of his mouth, or the veins that pop out of his neck.
The way these two performances work together and impact each other is extraordinary, and is as much of a testament to Zeitlin’s versatile balancing of responsibility as it is to the actors. While the visual landscape constructed here is an instantly singular one that I’m eager to return to, it’s the father-daughter by-play, always truthful to its time and place and always staggering in its primal, gut-stunting emotional power, that evolves the experience into an all-bases-covered frenzy of exhilaration. There’s not a single uncharged moment in the entire thing.
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