A full year after it emerged as the buzz title from Sundance 2012, Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild finally reaches Hong Kong, buoyed up by 4 Academy Award nominations including a surprising, yet richly deserved nod for six-year-old leading lady Quvenzhane Wallis.
On the surface, Zeitlin’s film seems to be almost reveling in the extreme poverty faced by residents of The Bathtub, a Louisiana bayou district on the wrong side of the levee. Hushpuppy (Wallis) scours in the dirt and the carnage of their post-Katrina wasteland, eking out a humble existence with her wayward, alcoholic father, Wink (Dwight Henry). We learn from her unreliable, yet revealing narration that her mother “left” soon after she was born, and that Wink is slowly succumbing to his drinking problem, and Hushpuppy may be left to fend for herself.
To this extent, Beasts is a gritty, realistic portrayal of a community determined to stay in their homes after the government deems it a “mandatory evacuation zone” – embodying one interpretation of the film’s title in the process. However, seen through the eyes of a smart, resourceful, yet also naïve and poorly-educated six-year-old, the dangers of the outside world take on a more nightmarish, fantastical quality. Hushpuppy regularly confuses the snippets of geography, history and biology that she has picked up from the adults in her life, misinforming her worldview, which Zeitlin does an incredible job of capturing onscreen. Hushpuppy believes she has a special bond with the real beasts who live around her – the birds, the pigs, even the crabs – and visualizes the threats to her idyllic existence as wild, stampeding hogs that are headed her way.
This manifestation was certainly a gamble on Zeitlin’s part, but it works wonderfully, adding an air of magical realism to the story that evokes the work of Japanese anime master Mayazaki Hayao (in particular, Princess Mononoke and My Neighbour Totoro). His films are often told from a young, female perspective and attempt to dissect ecological issues through fantastical stories. That Zeitlin manages to do so through such an earthy, tangible live action aesthetic is a genuine triumph. The soundtrack is another huge strength of the film, beautifully capturing the folksy history of the region in an uplifting score from Zeitlin and Dan Romer. Together with the grainy, handheld 16mm cinematography, the film manages to feel handmade, loose and immediate that only works in the favour of its young protagonist.
For all its strengths behind the camera, Beasts has become the success that it is because of its two inexperienced leads. Dwight Henry is a force to be reckoned with as the troubled, deeply flawed father left to raise a daughter when he can barely take care of himself. Henry juggles these complex emotions expertly, making us love him, hate him, fear for him and be fearful of him as the story progresses. But even Henry’s performance is eclipsed by the incredible Quvenzhane Wallis. She displays such depth, range and natural screen presence that it is obvious this is an actress who clearly understands her craft. Many child performers essentially play themselves onscreen and are unable to sustain their success once they grow up, but I have no doubt that should Wallis choose to follow a career in acting, she will only improve further.
I caught Beasts of the Southern Wild on a plane last summer, where even on a 9-inch screen with jet engines intruding through my flimsy headphones, the film’s power had been impossible to ignore. Now that I have had the chance to experience it on the big screen with a respectable sound system, there is no mistaking that Zeitlin has produced a modern masterpiece of American Independent Cinema.