That Beasts of the Southern Wild is a debut feature is breathtaking. My colleague Kris Tapley called the film assured, but more than that it's audacious and ambitious, a movie unwilling to be boxed in by a low budget. It strives for scope and acheives it; an entire world is created and populated, destroyed and recreated.
The film is set in The Bathtub, a shanty community just south of a massive levee. The levee has protected the people of the city - dry landers, they're called - from flooding, but it has doomed The Bathtub. Everyone there knows they are one big storm away from the end, that they are always hours from the apocalypse. These people - who would be considered homeless by the dry land authorities - live their lives with that in mind, with carousing and drinking and endless stream of celebratory holidays.
The opening scene of Beasts takes us through one of those holidays, a sort of Gasoline Alley Mardi Gras. It's exhilarating, beautiful and magical and engrossing. The entire world of The Bathtub is built, and with such simple authority that director Benh Zeitlin (who co-wrote the film with Lucy Alibar and co-composed the magnificent score with Dan Romer) earns complete trust. Wherever Beasts of the Southern Wild went, I realized, I would be willing to follow.
Where it goes is into an incredible bayou fairy tale. Beasts is reminiscent of the early work of David Gordon Green, but with a sheen of magical realism. The film is lyrically narrated by Hushpuppy, a 6 year old resident of The Bathtub. Quvenzhane Wallis is Hushpuppy, and she is awesome - in the most traditional sense of the word. Fierce and natural, Wallis dominates the film, imparting a truth that actors ten times her age must envy. Hushpuppy is being raised by her father, Wink, on a wild plot of land with ramshackle structures. She's incredibly independent because she must be; Wink is a drinker and a wild man, unable to conform to the standards of society.
Living in the wild, among the animals, Hushpuppy comes to understand the inherent connective nature of the universe. She listens to the beating heart of everything, including the world around her. When she learns the about aurochs, prehistoric beasts who once roamed the land, Beast's metaphorical side takes flight; deep in the Arctic ice ancient monsters begin to thaw and make their way towards The Bathtub. As they approach so does a storm, the apocalyptic day finally arriving.
Dwight Henry - a non-actor - is Wink. His performance is as fiery and honest as Wallis', and the movie refuses to make Wink a monster. He is trying to raise his child the best he can, trying to make her self-reliant and strong and independent, all while at the mercy of the beast within himself.
Zeitlin's film is gorgeous; from the lush swamps to the bric-a-brac construction of Wink and Hushpuppy's homes (they each have their own house), every frame of Beasts is filled with texture and beauty. And the film is as ballsy as it is beautiful, willing to go big and tempt ridicule. There's nothing to ridicule, though, only bold filmmaking that must be admired and loved.
Dense and lyrical, moving and odd, Beasts of the Southern Wild is the sort of film that makes Sundance worth attending. It's unconventional in an honest, inspiring way. This is a film that reminds us that vision and drive can be two of the most important elements of cinema. Zeitlin's vision is extraordinary and unique and human, and I can't wait to see where it takes him next.