“Beasts of the Southern Wild”
Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly, Gina Montana, Lowell Landes, Pamela HarperRating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity, child imperilment, disturbing images, brief profanity and fleeting sensuality
“In a million years, when kids go to school, they’re gonna know that there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived in the Bathtub with her daddy.”
Children create their own reality, defined by what they observe and experience, filtered through what they’ve been taught. Circumstances that adults would find dire, instead become great adventures. Absent any education — any sort of training by parents or other mentors — kids will concoct the wildest explanations for the simplest things … and the most fanciful reasons for the horrific.
The 9-year-old boy of director John Boorman’s semi-autobiographical “Hope and Glory” views the London blitz as a time of great excitement — an abandonment of discipline and decorum — with each day bringing a new shattered ruin to explore. This viewpoint never is presented as callous or insensitive; the beauty of Boorman’s 1987 drama — the message to be extracted — is that the human spirit triumphs and endures.
The same is true of director Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature: the challenging, opulently mesmerizing and almost defiantly unconventional “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Its protagonist — a 6-year-old girl known as Hushpuppy — is a wild child forced to confront our randomly cruel world on her own terms. She is, nonetheless, resourceful, stubbornly proud and unexpectedly perceptive in the manner of children, who often see through the artifice and social barriers erected by adults.
Hushpuppy (played with astonishing ferocity by Quvenzhané Wallis) lives near but not with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in a ramshackle southern Louisiana bayou community known as the Bathtub, situated below a levee that separates them from everything. Hushpuppy resides in her own dilapidated home, cooking herself meals of soup and cat food, firing up a jury-rigged gas stove with an acetylene torch.
Wink lives close enough to summon her for chores and the occasional fried chicken dinner, with leftover scraps distributed to a shared dog and stray livestock mostly left to fend for themselves. Wink’s friends and neighbors congregate at a nearby bar: a building held erect by spit, baling wire and prayer. These adults are falling-down drunk most of the time, their hard-scrabble lives little more than seeking food, eating it and then drifting into an alcoholic stupor.
Hushpuppy is by no means the only small child present; she and her peers get bits of local lore and fanciful legend from Miss Bathsheeba (Gina Montana), a blend of teacher, medicine woman and local matriarch. One incredible tale concerns huge, mystery-laden prehistoric creatures called aurochs, known only from Paleolithic cave etchings, and believed — by Miss Bathsheeba, at least — to have been frozen in glaciers long, long ago.
The relationship between Wink and Hushpuppy is tempestuous at best, alarmingly perilous at worst. She is, after all, merely a little girl; in one fit of pique, she burns down her house in a defiant “I’ll show you” response to his unwillingness to explain why he has been absent for days. Now forced to reside beneath the same roof, they treat each other even more warily.
Reflexive labels such as “benign neglect” and “child abuse” miss the point; of course this is a horrific environment for a little girl. But it’s the nature of their existence, and Wink understands this; his haphazard approach to tough love is the only way he knows how to prepare Hushpuppy for the harsh realities of their poverty-stricken world.
Daily routines are set aside by an explosive storm; we can assume this is Hurricane Katrina, while Hushpuppy believes that climate shifts have melted the polar ice and released the aurochs, now free to march toward the Bathtub and destroy it. In the harsh light of morning, their entire community is under water, or very nearly so. Only the bar remains, improbably, and so all survivors gather within its rickety walls.
Defiance takes them only so far, however; eventually, nature twists the knife past the point of endurance. Surviving the storm leaves a thrill of triumph, but it’s ephemeral; the true catastrophe arrives more slowly, in the aftermath, as the bayou begins to die.
And so Hushpuppy undertakes an odyssey of Homeric proportions — not always by choice — as she swims to an ancient, barge-like boat; descends into the candy-colored finery of a floating brothel; and gets dragged into the so-called civilized world, where her view of conventional medicine is insightfully ironic: “When an animal gets sick here, they plug it into a wall.”
Zeitlin populates his film with local nonactors, although he cast the net far and wide, interviewing some 4,000 little girls before settling on Wallis. The choice is inspired; she anchors this film with levels of intensity, intelligence and ferocity far beyond her pint-size frame. Hushpuppy is one of cinema’s immediately striking figures: a character who makes a memorable entrance and holds our attention — nay, demands it — every second she’s on camera.
Henry, equally memorable as Wink, is played by the man who ran the bakery across the street from the abandoned school where Zeitlin and his team auditioned everybody else. Montana, briefly memorable as Miss Bathsheba, is local Mardi Gras Indian royalty. The remaining adults are played by locals drawn from New Orleans and the bayou; to say they look and sound authentic would be needless understatement.
The prickly dynamic between Henry and Wallis couldn’t feel more real if they were actual father and daughter. They fight, squabble and fall into each other’s arms with an intensity that builds as this story progresses, reaching a climax that could wring tears from a stone.
All this said, however, Zeitlin’s film is … well … challenging. Ben Richardson’s ground-level cinematography jitters and jiggles, and can be hard to endure: not as vertigo-inducing as the shaky-cam in “The Blair Witch Project,” but in the same ballpark. This visual affectation is deliberate, of course; it augments the story’s gritty verisimilitude.
Zeitlin’s pacing is leisurely to the point of somnambulance; the editing — by Crockett Doob and Affonso Gonçalves — is similarly inert. At times, it feels as though Zeitlin and Richardson simply aimed the camera, left it running, and waited to see how their untrained cast would behave.
The story’s fantastic elements — the aurochs — are integrated clumsily, at times betrayed by Zeitlin’s micro-budget. I can excuse this; it makes sense that a child would envision these beasts in such a fashion. But the real and the imaginative ultimately slide together in an awkward manner that doesn’t quite gel with the dictates of point of view; Zeitlin may have pushed the metaphor a bit too far.
Such issues do nothing, however, to diminish young Wallis’ raw intensity, and our many memorable images of Hushpuppy, defiantly challenging the universe to do its worst. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is unapologetically weird and eccentric, but it’s also vividly memorable: a genuinely unique vision.
And we don’t see enough of that these days.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com