Call of the wild
STOP EVERYTHING you’re doing. Unless you intend to shun all human interaction over the coming months, you’re going to need to know about Beasts of the Southern Wild. Here comes the cheat sheet: like many an indie breakout before, the film has taken home prizes from Sundance, Cannes and all the right places.
Critical notices, almost without exception have been ecstatic: “ . . . a blast of sheer, improbable joy”, writes AO Scott at the New York Times, while his colleague, Manohla Dargis, lists it “ . . . among the best films to play at the festival in two decades”.
The reviews are impressive, the Camera d’Or is already in the bag and here come the celebrity endorsements. Last August when, on Barack Obama’s recommendation, Oprah Winfrey interviewed the film’s director and stars in a TV special entitled Why Oprah Loves Beasts of the Southern Wild, it became clear that Beasts was something other than this year’s Blue Valentine crossover.
“It was almost unimaginable that the film would generate any of this, or any kind of commercial success,” says director Benh Zeitlin with an incredulous shake of the head. “That it would travel like it has? It was so shocking. It is so shocking. How it would play in cinemas and at festivals? That wasn’t even on our radar. All I ever worried about was making something good. You want to make something that you’re proud of and that your actors are proud of and that the people who worked on the film are proud of.”
Beasts of the Southern Wild charts the adventures of a six-year-old Bayou ragamuffin called Hushpuppy (played by newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis) as she grapples with her father’s failing health. Meanwhile, the island community is succumbing to rising water. In the little girl’s mind these events are linked with melting icecaps and the impending arrival of the monstrous prehistoric aurochs of the title.
“The beasts were always a really important part of the film,” Zeitlin tells me. “From early on, it was a story about Hushpuppy and these horsemen of the apocalypse who were coming in sync with the onset of her father’s illness and the decay of the land. We thought a lot about how to pace them. That they’d remain in the shadows and wouldn’t enter the real world until the very end. We were very conscious that a lot of times what you don’t see is scarier than what you do.”
Zeitlin, the son of noted folklorists Amanda Dargan and Steve Zeitlin, grew up in New York and is the co-founder of Court 13, an independent collective of film-makers at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University. He admits the Greek myths and folk tales he heard growing up loom large over his debut feature. The film, in turn, has invited slant comparisons with folksy fantasies Night of the Hunter, Days of Heaven and Aguirre, the Wrath of God.
“My whole life when I was a kid was ‘I’m never going to be a folklorist. I’m never going to be like my parents’,” laughs Zeitlin. “It’s kind of clear to me now that the stories I’ve heard and that they and the people they hung out with are the same kind of spirits who interest me as characters. I was always really interested in different kinds of stories. And I loved Roald Dahl as a kid. I feel like the texture of this movie is similar to Matilda or The BFG. It starts in the real world but spills out into something else.”