Sundance – Beasts of the Southern Wild
I happened upon Beasts of the Southern Wild quite by accident. I had an unexpected free morning one day at the festival and just drove to the nearest theatre to waitlist whatever may be showing. It was fortunate that I wandered into that screening. In a year where the competition films (and most of the others) were generally weak, I just happened to stumble into the best film at the festival. The best film that’s shown at the festival in years. I have been to lots of movies and Sundance, and I’ve never seen a movie get a standing ovation, let alone one that lasted for what felt like several minutes. The festival recognized it too. Beasts went on to when the Cinematography Award, as well as the Grand Jury Prize. It’s now just been honored at Cannes, winning the Camera D’or. It’s a wildly imaginative film full of triumph, magic and heart.
Beasts is Benh Zeitlin’s first full-length directorial effort. He also wrote the script with Lucy Alibar, a first time writer, which is frankly kind of amazing. The film takes place in southern Louisiana, in an area nicknamed ‘The Bathtub.’ There, a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy lives in an impoverished, but enchanting world with her alcoholic father. Hushpuppy is played by a young actress named Quvenzhané Wallis and she is tremendous. Zeitlin mentioned in the Q&A that the filmmakers saw over 3,000 children for the part. This seemed to me excessive, until I saw her at work.
Hushpuppy’s community is tight-knit, they’re all so very poor, but all so very happy. They live in shanties and rusted old trailers. By eschewing traditional priorities like materialism, or having running water or electricity, The Bathtub is a place that values experiences, they have frequent get togethers, glorious parties with more crawfish and what I assume is moonshine than you can shake a fist at. While Zeitlin was able to capture the wonder of childhood, he also managed to capture the difficult pains that come with growing up. Despite Hushpuppy’s age, she’s indeed asked to grow up much sooner than she should. Her father is dying. Despite his alcoholism and, at times, his brutal approach to parenting, and despite her incredible independence (her father disappears for days at a time, and she even lives in her own house), she is still a six year-old little girl.
While her father doesn’t come out and say he’s dying, Hushpuppy’s a smart girl. Her young mind, however, is not quite capable of processing it. So at times, the story lends itself to a visual metaphor of her coming to terms with the situation. I’m not quite sure how literally to take this side story (is it her imagination?), but I loved it. She imagines (I think) great prehistoric monsters frozen in far away icecaps. Each time we visit the monsters, they get closer and closer to The Bathtub, at first just breaking away from the icecaps, then floating through oceans while melting. Eventually they reach land the huge thundering of their hooves gets more and more intense. It’s unclear whether Hushpuppy, or the audience for that matter, is to fear the beasts or not and the moment when Hushpuppy finally meets them is certainly my favorite moment of the film. This sounds like it could be hokey, I’m full aware. But believe me when I tell you, it is gorgeously realized.
There’s a tremendous amount of talent obvious in Zeitlin’s direction. Lots of people are drawing comparisons to Terrance Malick (I personally feel this actually a slight to Zeitlin, but I’m sure it was meant as a compliment) which Zeitlin lists among his influences. Others include John Cassavettes, Emir Kusturica and Czech animator Jan Svankmajer. He should be mentioned he also created the fantastic as well with Dan Romer. I expect we’ll be seeing great things from him.