Shots of Humanity

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)     ★★★★★

Directed by Benh Zeitlin (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

If there’s one thing movies have shown us since their sideshow development at the end of the 19th century, it’s that we live in quite a big universe. Cinema has allowed messages from across the world to reach mass audiences unlike any other art film, and in doing so, has presented us with ever-changing assessments of how each man and woman in our world may contribute to something far greater than themselves. Hushpuppy, the six-year-old protagonist of Beasts of the Southern Wild, understands the vast nature of her surroundings, and communicates with animals via semi-fantastical thoughts and visualizations, those that acknowledge their mutual importance within the eternal landscape of life itself.

By first-time director Benh Zeitlin, Beasts is a uniquely imaginative portrait of lives so enchantingly real, shot so naturalistically that it cannot help but feel, in an ironic, Apocalypse Now sense, like fantasy. Taking influence from such films as Pan’s Labyrinth, Days of Heaven, and Slumdog Millionaire, Zeitlin has made a film of startling originality, winning the Camera d’Or at Cannes and the Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic) at Sundance. And featuring astonishing performances by 9-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis (she was 5 when filming began) and the man who plays her struggling father, Dwight Henry, it also manages to be the best film of the year so far.

Hushpuppy (Wallis) lives in The Bathtub. To some viewers, it may feel like a different planet. Within the film’s onscreen reality, it is a Delta community bordering New Orleans, and separated by levees that makes it a completely distinct community, bound by the family-like relationships between its inhabitants, but featuring living conditions that strongly resemble those of Hell.

Her daddy, Wake (Henry), wounded by his wife’s departure several years ago, drowns out the relentless pain plaguing his soul through the alcohol that bathes each proud citizen of The Bathtub, and perhaps, gives them a sufficient numbness to make their lives bearable. Wake hopelessly loves his daughter, but is fragile enough to smack Hushpuppy when impulsive childishness leads her to make some perilous mistakes. His dream of all dreams is to enable her to be self-sufficient, yet he fears the departure of his goal as he contracts a mysterious illness, and as a foreboding storm comes to reach The Bathtub.

His daughter, while not yet being capable of surviving on her own, is still a symbol of near-impossible resilience. Hushpuppy navigates her life as a piece of a whole; her naive, childhood instincts only complement the survival instincts she has been taught, which then provoke the imagination that makes her story one of complete fascination. She listens to all living things, hears the beat of their hearts, listens to what stories they have to tell.

She seems also determined to tell her own, realizing the triviality with which the rest of the world would view her situation, yet always in recognition of its importance as an astounding record of humanity (of course, she conveys these thoughts far more simplistically than they sound). As this great storm approaches, Hushpuppy visualizes the polar ice caps melting, and believes that a giant cluster of prehistoric creatures (called aurochs) is approaching. She loves her father in return, but at times, fails to distinguish the hate of his hand from that of the man.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is exquisite in its approach of how tragic circumstances could affect a developing child, in addition to how it could provoke strength and open-mindedness in a way that couldn’t be unleashed in any other fashion. Zeitlin, directing a script by himself and Lucy Alibar (who wrote the one-act play that the film is based upon) also convey their unremitted love for the people featured in the film, those natives of New Orleans who have received shabby treatment through cliches and stereotypes.

As Hushpuppy says in one segment of her superb voiceover, “The Bathtub has more holidays than the whole rest of the world.” These characters attempt to remain in a perpetual state of optimism, drinking themselves half to death, but loving their home more than many could ever be capable of. It’s their own world, their own slice of life, and no matter the circumstances, they will never depart from this speck of the cosmos.

If Quvenzhane Wallis were to be nominated for an Oscar with regard to her performance as Hushpuppy, she would be the youngest Best Actress nominee ever. If she were to win, she would become the youngest winner of any Academy Award. I couldn’t imagine a performance more deserving than this. Wallis and her mother had to lie about the child’s age for her to even be considered for the role (she was 5 when filming began, and was chosen among almost 4,000 other candidates). It is a flawless performance, driven by both Hushpuppy’s instincts as a child, and need to survive that calls upon her coming-of-age.

She believes that her mother, however gone she may be, is still part of the world in some way or another. Hushpuppy has conversations with her, shouts out at her over the rising water, and even attempts to find her. Her quest is a heart-wrenching journey, but never sentimental. The spectacularly inventive score by Zeitlin and composer Dan Romer does tug at the heartstrings, but in a well-deserved fashion. As a whole, Beasts never feels manipulative, and is truly commendable in the way it involves its audience emotionally.

Each step Hushpuppy takes is an impactful event in an extraordinarily present tense; the main concern for these characters is survival, yet this girl is curious of the way survival is perceived. She does not see it as a selfish concern. Instead, she comes to recognize it as a communal experience, and interprets life, death, and the flow of her natural environment as a system that comes to define the universe; the concept of “everything fitting together just right.”

This journey is personified by her growing relationship with Wake, whose inhabitance by Dwight Henry is a sensational performance in a tale of dramatic nirvana. Henry is not a professional actor. In contrast, he owns his own bakery. His strong commitment to Hushpuppy likely comes across due to the love he has for his own family, and nearly every scene these characters inhabit feels painfully true. When Wake falls to his weaknesses, the onscreen result couldn’t be more humane. He and his daughter have a rule against crying, a firm indictment against their suffering. In one scene, both break it. You will too.

This combination of fantasy and harsh reality requires quite an eye, and director Benh Zeitlin surely has it, aided by cinematographer Ben Richardson and editors Crockett Doob and Affonso Goncalves. Zeitlin was raised in Queens, his mother and father sharing a fascination for New York City folklore. After attending Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, Zeitlin moved to New Orleans and likely fell in love with lore of a quite different kind. The camerawork here approaches realism with indie-centric shakiness, yet fills the screen with impeccably beautiful imagery, that when combined with Hushpuppy’s voiceover, feels reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s level of cinematic excellence.

Each shot is carefully composed, and Zeitlin is confident enough behind the camera to show us things he believes we have never seen before. This is life in the real world, and certainly not that which we could commonly associate with idealized notions of America. It therefore feels as surreal as the most realistic war film, filled to the brim with real horrors that feel like fantasy, and such powerful optimism to contradict it. An early sequence (featuring who knows how many fireworks and bottles of hard liquor) will simply take your breath away.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is an emotional roller coaster, driven by performances that verge on transcendant. And when situated within imagery that dances effortlessly between naturalistic observation and an astonishing sense of the otherworldly, it becomes a film of endless opportunities to experience; the options strongly differing for each viewer. For instance, does Benh Zeitlin have a political agenda? That’s up to you, as are your feelings of how you associate the events onscreen with post-Katrina tragedy.

To sum up this incredible piece of filmmaking, there is a particular bit of voiceover that seems appropriate to share, as Hushpuppy does with her audience. “When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me flying around in invisible pieces.” Some shots in Zeitlin’s film feature vast levels of grain, and I can’t help but imagine each and every bit of the director’s pictorial imagery as an invisible piece, those which fit together “just right” to create what we see on the silver screen. Movies like Beasts are the reason we venture to theaters in the first place. There are many stories to be told, and oftentimes, the smaller ones are those that create such an understanding portrait of our own existence. Don’t blink when you see Beasts of the Southern Wild; there’s simply too much to see. But if you find it as effective as I did, your eyes will certainly be open. And when you return home, back to a daily life of often complacent routine, they will remain that way.



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