Benh Zeitlin's unexpected cajun gem is one of the most imaginative directorial debuts of recent years.
More than living up to its evocative title, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a loose cannon of a movie. Adapted by Lucy Alibar from her own play, Juicy and Delicious, with the help of debut director Benh Zeitlin, it was shot on slender means with a nonprofessional cast and boundless ambition.
Its 2012 Sundance premiere sparked rapturous reviews, earned it the Grand Jury prize and stoked some intense critical debate. It’s the story of a young girl, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), who lives with her alarmingly erratic father, Wink (Dwight Henry).
They reside in a ramshackle Bayou community on the farthest reaches of the Louisiana delta. Hushpuppy’s mother long since 'swam away'. When outside forces threaten their existence and Wink’s health begins to decline, Hushpuppy’s extraordinary mettle is put to the ultimate test.
While the film’s setting is contemporary, it quickly becomes clear that Hushpuppy’s is a childhood free of consumerist trappings. And yet, while refreshingly unhomogenised, it’s by no means idealised; left to her own devices, this is a kid who can be found cooking her supper with a blowtorch.
Beasts conjures a vivid, particular and uncanny world through the eyes of a plainspeaking, courageous child guide. The resulting film is rich yet unquantifiable, and attempts to boil it down risk reducing its stock – a hearty gumbo of ecological folklore, coming-of-age fantasy and apocalyptic adventure. If on paper that makes it sound fairly insufferable, the force of its lead performances and its unusual tone – alloyed by its grassroots production methods, untamed aesthetic and freewheeling characters – make watching it feel like a thrilling discovery.
Quvenzhané Wallis, who was cast as Hushpuppy aged just five, gives an astonishingly gutsy performance, precisely because it never feels like one. While as Wink, real-life bakery owner Dwight Henry manages to inspire empathy, censure and affection all at once. Those who aren’t entirely swept along by its episodic narrative might find Beasts to be less than the sum of its parts, and it’s far from a perfect film.
Though it’s hard not to be charmed when it makes a virtue out of imperfection at every stroke, from the non-professional casting to its homespun special effects (green-screened pigs with handmade horns stand in pretty convincingly for 'Aurochs', mythical beasts who loom large in Hushpuppy’s imagination), which are spliced – with glorious incongruity – with what looks like National Geographic archive footage of melting icecaps. It has been accused by some of tweeness, clichéd black magic realism and, given its post-Katrina echoes, of perpetuating damaging cultural stereotypes.
Others, meanwhile, complain that it fails to engage with the political issues it evokes – specifically extreme poverty in the US – altogether. If you like reading political conspiracies into character names in superhero franchises, you’ll have a field day with Beasts, precisely because it defies a simple allegorical reading. Approach it with an open mind, though, and you may just stumble across one of the most startlingly imaginative directorial debuts of recent years.
Despite superlative write-ups, approach with caution any film for grown-ups whose lead character is named ‘Hushpuppy’.
Delightful, unexpected, unlike anything you’ve seen in a long time.
When can we watch it again?