Although few fans of independent film like to admit it, the world of indie cinema can be just as prone to predictability and cookie-cutter plots as Hollywood. I sometimes feel like I might jump off a building if I have to watch one more movie about twenty-somethings mumbling to each other while they try to juggle love and career in the big city.
Perhaps this explains our crazy joy when a powerful and unique new film like Beasts of the Southern Wild crashes into our consciousness. Like the mythical creatures conjured by the film’s young protagonist, Beasts seems to rumble out of nowhere, overwhelming us with deeply felt emotions, brilliant performances and style to burn. Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature has already won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and the Caméra d’Or (for best first-time director) at the Cannes Film Festival.
Beasts of the Southern Wild takes us into the highly imaginative universe of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis). She is a six-year-old African-American girl who sort of lives with her dad (they have separate shacks) in The Bathtub, a fiercely independent, multiracial community on an island below the floodplain on the outskirts of New Orleans. They have a vibrant life completely cut off from modern society, but Hushpuppy instinctively senses the fragility of their existence. Her apocalyptic premonitions come true with the arrival of Hurricane Katrina, which literally turns their world upside-down and poisons their land.
By viewing this haunting story through the eyes of Hushpuppy, a young child whose imagination has never been constrained by the reality of our modern society, Zeitlin plunges viewers into a universe that is alive with fantastical creatures, ominous portents and mythic resonances. The film vibrates with the intensity of childhood and the dominant emotions of that time: Beauty and terror.
The film’s striking imagery and strong affinity with nature draws comparisons to the work of Terrence Malick, but an equally likely influence is the loose-limbed, quirky work of Robert Altman. Zeitlin shares Altman’s ability to draw rich performances from a tightly-knit ensemble of actors. Wallis is mesmerizing as Hushpuppy, and Dwight Henry is pitch-perfect as her proud but erratic father.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is not perfect. It is uneven, losing its way at times, especially when the film leaves the surreal landscape of The Bathtub for the harsh realities of post-Katrina New Orleans. However, this bold and illuminating filmmaking takes us somewhere we’ve never been before, shows us amazing sights and introduces us to an unforgettable cast of characters. Beasts of the Southern Wild bristles with energy, humor and haunting insights into the challenges of living in our crazy world.
While Beasts of the Southern Wild is wildly phantasmagorical in form, the film works because it is rooted in very real emotional truths. Most people’s lives aren’t as unstable as the inhabitants of The Bathtub, but almost anyone can understand Hushpuppy’s real joy experiencing the world’s wonders and her willingness to fight to save her home and community.