Drawing its inspiration from the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a beautiful and enriching contemporary fairy tale…
Directed by Ben Zeitlin and adapted from Lucy Alibar’s play Juicy and Delicious (who co-writes the film alongside Zeitlin), Beasts of the Southern Wild received an awful lot of attention when it first played at the Cannes Film Festival 2012 where it won several awards. It has since received extraordinary reviews around the world.
The film is set in a fictional bayou-locale dubbed the “Bathtub” by its inhabitants thanks to it being on the wrong side of the levee and almost below water level. There are stories about of an apparent forthcoming near-biblical apocalypse, storms are coming, the ice caps are going to melt, and these monsters called the Aurochs are descending upon the levee. Meanwhile, a young girl named Hushpuppy, played by the extraordinary Quvenzhané Wallis, is living with her father, Wink (played by Dwight Henry), and both are living out this existence in this area, which in some ways, look strangely foreboding and apocalyptic, but yet looks otherworldly and fantastical. Hushpuppy’s mother has apparently swum away, and Hushpuppy is on her own quest to find her again while struggling to come to terms of her dying father’s forthcoming demise.
One of the things that the film does is that it cleverly blends the gritty harsh reality of the post-Katrina world with a fantastical netherworld that would draw comparisons with both Pans Labyrinth and Where The Wild Things Are, much more than the Terrence Malick comparisons that a lot of people had made. What the film does is that it brilliantly straddles the divide between fantasy and reality. You get this extraordinarily realistic portrait of a world that you might recognise and is, on the one hand, grounded in a very real and contemporary political reality that continuously recalls Katrina and its aftermath as an entire community is abandoned in the wake of a devastating storm. However, all the way through the film, you see this world through the eyes of a very young girl, which gives it this magical and realistic tone. When casting the film, the filmmakers looked at people from the areas worst affected by Katrina. Dwight Henry was apparently working in a local bakery shop at the time and had lived through Karina. He got the role because Zeitlin thought he had the right feel for the role. It proves to be an inspired choice.
If you start to look at Beasts of the Southern Wild in terms of its stark and bleak reality, then you could say the film is a comment upon poverty, environmentalism or the political failure to deal with communities on the fringes of society. Realistic issues are what the film deals with effectively, but through the eyes of the story’s young protagonist, it talks about them in a magical and fairy tale-like way. This means that it’s the kind of film that ideally young audiences can completely engage with, even though the film is rated 12A and that there are some tough scenes in it.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is really impressive because it manages to tell a story that you can read in so many different ways, and even the director claims that the film is not specific in terms of narrative. He explains that the story is very universal, open to many different views, and as far as he was concerned, he claims that it’s all about seeing a world through a child’s eyes. Quvenzhané Wallis is an extraordinary rising talent to watch out for; you are never thinking for one moment that you’re not seeing this world completely through her eyes. In one terrific moment where she accidentally sets fire to her own house, she hides inside a cardboard box and we just see a close-up of her face inside the box and you are instantly drawn into her just through her silent expression and that shows how much of a magnetic screen presence she is.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a portrait of a multi-ethnic community all joined together by the fact that they are completely outside of the levee, and they have extraordinary dignity, strength, power and personality that really shows up on the screen in a way that absolutely has you rooting for them. However, the film is also a mythical and realistic fairy tale about something that looks like the end of days as seen through the eyes of a young child. That might sound as if the film’s cramming in too many concepts, themes and ideas, but the real joy of Beasts of the Southern Wild is that it doesn’t feel like that at all. The film is a magical fable in the field of Pans Labyrinth and Where The Wild Things Are, with its feet firmly on the ground and its head held high up in the air, and it comes as no surprise to see it universally well-received. One of the best films of 2012.