Beasts of the Southern Wild will no doubt make my Top 10 list for best films this year. I know most of you haven’t heard of this film, but rest assured, once you see this film, you will not forget it. Beasts is Benh Zeithlin’s feature-length directorial debut, and even though he is just 29 years old, he has a poetic vision that is on par with Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick. Zeithlin’s attention to detail allows the movie to successfully portray backwater Louisiana, magical realism, and a culture’s determination and strength. It is unlike anything I have seen. Not only is this film entertaining, smart, and creative, it is also important in that it shows a very realistic portrayal of some of the poorest people in present day America as they struggle to survive disasters both man-made and natural. This is what every indie filmmaker should strive for.
Beasts of the Southern Wild was shot in the swamps and rural areas of southern Louisiana, and aims to be poetry in motion. According to the two central actors in the film, Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry, Zeitlin did not want anything simulated. If the audience sees actors in a body of water, that water was an actual ocean. If there were animals on screen, those were live animals with the real actors (minus one shot that was too dangerous to be shot with a live animals). In order for everything to look real, it had to be real.
The film focuses on the outlandish and surreal life of a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (Wallis) and her father Wink (Henry) who live on the outskirts of and separate from a Southern Louisiana city in a place they fondly refer to as “the prettiest place on Earth” or “The Bathtub.” In reality, the Bathtub is a depressingly isolated place consisting of dense swamp land, make-shift houses on stilts, filth and trash. Hushpuppy spends most of her days walking around in a t-shirt, underwear and rain boots looking for animals and listening to their heartbeats. The locals take pride in being societal outcasts spending their days surviving, drinking, dancing and partying. They have no desire whatsoever to be civilized or become part of modern day society.
Hushpuppy firmly believes that she, the animals, and the trees are all interconnected and that if something bad happens to one, everyone will be affected. She has very little recollection of her mother, and her father Wink is a frightening and abusive man at times. But Wink also teaches Hushpuppy to be strong and face whatever conflicts come her way. Although their relationship is tumultuous and sometimes violent, they really love each other and look out for one another. After a very powerful storm passes over The Bathtub and Wink blows up a levee to save his home, The Bathtub becomes an area of evacuation. Hushpuppy and the others are forced onto the mainland and into society to receive medical treatment. As Wink is in declining health, it’s up to Hushpuppy to become “the man” of the house and look and take care of her own.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is loosely based on a play by Lucy Alibar titled Juicy and Delicious. Director Zeitlin and Alibar (who have been close friends for years) set out to write a script together, and what they came up with reflected some of the overarching ideas found in Alibar’s play. But the film also was reminiscent of the societal suffering and loss caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The result is something special and undeniably unique.
Both Wallis and Henry had not had any previous acting experience before this film, but after auditioning thousands of people for the roles, Zeitlin chose the duo more for their history than acting resume. Henry has a certain passion seen only in a handful of actors, showing how true his nature is to his own child and what he would do to protect her. And Wallis is a very smart and brilliant young girl who pulls off a tough and emotional performance. The nuance and depth of the story may have been tough for even seasoned actors to undertake. You see, Henry is a local of New Orleans and lived and stayed in the city through the Katrina disaster. He is all too familiar with tragedy and loss.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a visually stunning and meaningful film, and it has some of the best acting I have seen in recent memory. It’s a milestone in filmmaking and it will haunt you for a long time thereafter. It’s the beauty from the beast.