Recommended Viewing Situation:
Eating birthday cake on your father’s grave.
Running Time: 93 minutes.
Format: 16mm film on Arriflex 16 SR3 and Arriflex 416.
Director: Benh Zeitlin.
Writer: Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin.
Cinematographer: Ben Richardson.
Awards: Special Jury Award at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival (2012); Movie of the Year at AFI Awards (2013); Breakout Performance at the AAFCA Awards (2012); Best Film Music or Score, Best Woman Screenwriter and Best Breakthrough Performance at EDA Awards (2013); Best First Film and Breakthrough Artist at Austin Film Critics and more.
Inspired by Lucy Alibar’s play Juicy and Delicious, Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) is just that; a meaty, visceral feast for the senses. Visually stunning in a way which calls to mind Terrence Malik’s work, this feature debut for Benh Zeitlin is both refreshing and heavy with a sense of significance which usually only comes with serious filmmaking experience. Beasts is a story of loss – the loss of parents, of the environment, of a way of life – seen through the eyes of a child. Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives in the ‘Bathtub’, an island separated from the mainland by a levee which keeps the water out, putting the Bathtub at risk of flooding. When Hushpuppy’s alcoholic father, Wink (Dwight Henry), becomes ill, her world begins to fall apart around her. Like the protagonist of Pan’s Labyrinth (1996), Hushpuppy creates a disturbing internal world to help her cope with the harsh realities of real life.
Where childhood is often presented nostalgically as carefree and simple, Hushpuppy’s grave questioning of the universe and the responsibility she feels for her father reminds us what it is really like to be young and determined to save the world. Hushpuppy’s journey is a coming-of-age story about a girl who is too young to come of age – an unfortunate reality for many black children in a society in which authority figures such as the police are not always symbols of protection. While the main threat in Hushpuppy’s internal world is apparently environmental, with a storm approaching, sheets of ice crashing into the ocean and pre-historic aurochs emerging from within, the film is bursting with other modern American anxieties around race, gender and class which remain unspoken as Hushpuppy’s imagination transforms them into the wild beasts of the title. The absence of Hushpuppy’s mother – an absence which is constantly present – is an abandonment which leaves Hushpuppy to be raised in the image of her father, who exemplifies the emotional strain of toxic masculinity, and one which intensifies the sense that the Bathtub has been neglected by the state.
Filmed in a documentary style, reacting to the action on screen rather than pre-empting it, Beasts acknowledges its own voyeurism as it offers us a blinding glimpse of the extreme poverty and vitality of life in the Louisiana bayou. Though its triumphant score (by Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin) and the electrifying on-screen presence of then six-year-old Wallis promise an uplifting romp, what Beasts of the Southern Wild delivers instead is an unsanitized view of the effects of hurricane Katrina on a community on the margins of America. While this mythic explosion of Americana deals with heavy themes, it leaves the viewer not with the sense of nihilism which usually accompanies the apocalyptic, but with Hushpuppy’s determination to befriend our own beasts and to live wildly.