On Movies: 'Southern Wild' is beastly good
Six-year-old Hushpuppy lives in a shack built atop an abandoned school bus on a crumbling island at the bottom of Louisiana bayou country. Her mother is gone – she “swam away” we are told – and her father is mentally unstable and liable to go missing for days at a time.
So Hushpuppy pretty much raises herself, with the help and companionship of the other two dozen or so adults and children who also live in the swampland called “the Bathtub.” They survive off the bounty of land and water, but their simple way of life is threatened by man and his abuse of nature -- symbolized by the oil derricks that pollute the waters around them, rising tides that threaten to engulf them and, more allegorically, the fierce prehistoric beasts of the title, giant ravenous boars heading south after being awakened from ancient ice by global warming.
And then there are the deadly, land-swallowing storms that seem more frequent and ferocious as time goes by. The next one is expected soon.
That is the setting for “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” an extraordinary independent film that is deeply mythic and at the same time grounded in the undeniable, gritty details of real life -- life as it is lived at a specific time and place, a time that may be running out and a place that may be disappearing. It was directed with great energy and imagination by filmmaker Benh Zeitlin, a New Yorker who moved to Louisiana in the wake of Katrina. The film was adapted from a play by Lucy Alibar. It was produced by the Court 13 collective.
None of the actors is a professional. Young Quvenzhané Wallis was one of 3,500 Louisiana children considered for Hushpuppy. She gives a totally believable, emotionally gripping performance as both the star of the movie and its musing narrator. Dwight Henry, a New Orleans baker, gives a seamless performance as her bedeviled father.
The film portrays an aspect of the American dream that has nothing to do with acquiring wealth – indeed, is almost antithetical to the whole notion of acquisition. The dream is about freedom. The people of the Bathtub raise the chickens and catch the crayfish they eat, and get about in a boat made from discarded 55-gallon drums and the bed of a pickup truck. They help one another, and try to avoid the rest of the world. When a huge storm sweeps through and leaves most of the island drowned in water, they fight being taken to a crowded, bureaucratic government shelter. They want their island back – and they figure out a clever if radical way to get it.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” won the top award at the Sundance Film Festival and was named “best first film” at the Cannes festival. It is beautifully filmed. While the story is confined to a relatively small space and is uncomplicated, the film is thematically ambitious – as ambitious, in its way, as last year’s panoramic “Tree of Life.”
Given half a chance, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” will still be talked and argued about six months from now when time comes for the year-end awards and the 10-best lists. It is certainly the most interesting movie I’ve seen this year.