Beasts of the Southern Wild
Directed by Benh Zeitlin. Starring Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry Club, IFI, Dublin/Light House, Dublin, 93 min
Benh Zeitlin’s surreal drama truly is one of a kind, writes DONALD CLARKE
YOU’D BE forgiven for thinking that Benh Zeitlin’s singular debut feature has been around for centuries. Featuring cameos by lumbering prehistoric beasts, set in an imagined version of the American South untouched by the industrial revolution, the film certainly works hard at shaking off all the pesky encumbrances of modernity. That’s not quite what we’re getting at, though.
Unveiled to raptures at the Sundance Film Festival last January, winner of the best first film prize at Cannes in May, Beasts of the Southern Wild has had time to pass through several critical arcs before arriving giddily in our cinemas. Placing a period at the end of one such discussion, Sight and Sound, official organ of the British Film Institute, recently identified it as “the worst movie of the year”.
After such a hubbub, the viewer has the right to expect something special. The film is certainly that – it’s one of the best films of the year.
Adapted from a play by Lucy Alibar, Beasts concerns itself with the desperate adventures of an African-American child – a meaner Huck Finn, a much nicer Oskar Matzerath from The Tin Drum – living close to cruel nature in a fantastic corner of the Mississippi Delta.
Quvenzhané Wallis, just six when the film was shot, manages just the right blend of precocious assurance and suppressed vulnerability as ragged-haired Hushpuppy. She speaks like a biblical sprite, but is naive enough to reach for a blowtorch when seeking to light her rude stove. Wink (Dwight Henry), her ailing father, oscillates between sensitivity and forgivable fury.
This barely functional family gets by in an endangered community known as The Bathtub. The area is so called because it lies low in the ground and, when a hurricane hits (shots of melting ice sheets point us towards ecological concerns), the pair are forced to take to the river in an improvised raft. A journey of mythological oddness then ensues. Noisy brothels team with life. Those ancient hogs meander through ancient undergrowth.
It would take a very hard heart to resist the unhinged energy of Zeitlin’s fierce imagination (so cinematic, it seems faintly astonishing the piece derives from a play). Ben Richardson’s damp, fungal photography and the weird, surging score by the director and Dan Romer confirm the impression that this universe sits at an angle to our own. Wink and Hushpuppy, both played by non-professionals, are grainy, believable characters, but their journey takes them through environments as skewed as those in the films of Werner Herzog.
The film is angry about how certain communities – Hurricane Katrina looms – have been ignored by the political mainstream. Beasts is, however, at its best when at its most surreal and other-worldly. Zeitlin has managed a rare feat: persuading the cinema screen to accept a class of magic realism.
One cannot entirely dismiss the accusation that Zeitlin (from a bohemian background in New York City) is in the business of aestheticising and prettifying rural poverty. The film is nobody’s idea of documentary naturalism and, indeed, its least confident sequences – notably a visit to a hospital – are those that rub too closely against recognisable versions of the modern world. Shine too much reality on Beasts of the Southern Wild and its poetic artificiality begins to become apparent.
There is no reason to do such a thing. A similar analysis of The Night of the Hunter, another film involving a weird river journey, would, to no worthwhile end, confirm that Charles Laughton’s imperishable film did not take place in the everyday world of tobacconists and tax returns. So what?
It remains to be seen if Beasts of the Southern Wild will propel Zeitlin towards a fecund career. It feels very much like one of a kind. It feels complete. It feels out of its time. These are problems worth having.