Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature Beasts of the Southern Wild is set in a post-Katrina water world in a Louisiana town, called The Bathtub. Bursting with energy it tells the story of six-year-old Hushpuppy, played by the truly amazing Quvenzhané Wallis, who’s trying to survive among the washed out grown-ups, particularly her bottle-loving father who drops in and out as he pleases. Literally, as Hushpuppy lives across the field from her father in a ramshackle pile of thrash. Her mother, we learn only later, left this world some time before, spirited away by whatever alcohol was around. Out of these post-apocalyptic surroundings Zeitlin creates a wonderful vibrant atmosphere but all the while Hushpuppy’s longing for something solid and lasting permeates the film. Far away, great prehistoric animated beasts burst across the plains, drawing closer and closer. Like Don DeLillo’s poisonous gas cloud in White Noise, the beasts embody the impenetrable, unknowable force of reality, about to change Hushpuppy forever.
The impressive feat Zeitlin pulls off is that he channels the story’s sadness through Hushpuppy’s wondrous eyes. Daddy clearly poses a threat to her existence but if the going gets tough Hushpuppy gets going, leaving her corner of the Bathtub together with three other youngsters. She doesn’t judge and condemn her father. She just observes and acts. We get to think that the only real curse of old age is inertia, in whatever forms it presents itself.
Zeitlin’s direction and Ben Richardson’s cinematography create a hyperkinetic balance. The thunder of storms and floods and drunken violence is matched by the sounds of celebrations and fireworks and the unmistakable bond that connects the lively inhabitants. There is a strong sense of belonging even though people die all the time drowning themselves in booze or water, just out of the children’s sight.
The film’s southern slang with its dancing words and sentences adds to the boisterous rhythm of the images. They become infused with the language as much as the rough poetic language in turn is expanded and coloured by the images. Through the ever-present water the film obtains a sense of flow and perpetual movement. In this wilderness everything is happening all of the time.
“Modern society tolerates those living outside it less and less”, Last Winter’s John Shank recently said to me in an interview. True, I guess, for a number of reasons, but in Beasts of the Southern Wild that outside world isn’t the behemoth you’d expect. The Bathtub’s inhabitants are warned to leave the area because it’s not safe for them, not because of any power play. They refuse, of course. Out there is civilisation but this is their world, seemingly indifferent to the laws of others or, one gets the feeling, even to the laws of reality.
“This boat takes you wherever you wanna go”, says the captain of a run-down vessel Hushpuppy stumbles upon. And so it does, bringing gentile and robust Hushpuppy across the water to a new place. For a while. Apart from the visual style, the film’s warm embrace and graceful beauty stem from Hushpuppy’s wonderfully observant attitude towards her surroundings. The girl is the film’s central image and a dominant force in the story, even though her age renders her powerless to change the course of things.
Zeitlin shows courage by not treating her as a child that needs protection but as a child that can stand up for herself. She can look the beasts in the eye and choose. Zeitlin has created a dazzling imaginary universe with a scope that feels real and cuts to the heart, sharing more than words with Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. But there’s more. Together with Jeff Nichols’ Mud, also playing at Cannes this year, Beasts of the Southern Wild explores part of the mythological American South as much as it does the minds of their young protagonists. A place where laws don’t seem to reach and children play in the space between worlds. Leos Carax said during the press conference for Holy Motors that cinema is an island with a big cemetery, meaning it’s nearly impossible not to repeat what others have done before. That may be true, but while Beasts of the Southern Wild has a few minor flaws, Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature feels utterly fresh.
Edited by Rita di Santo
@ FIPRESCI 2012