Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is based on the one act play, Juicy and Delicious, by Lucy Alibar. She co-writes the film adaptation with first time writer/director Benh Zeitlin. It definitely does not feel like a stage adaption – not in a Carnage, Sleuth, kind of way – as it feels surprisingly epic and far reaching in its apocalyptic nature.
Our protagonist, the six year old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), lives with her hot tempered father (Dwight Henry) in the fictional ‘Bathtub’, located just outside of New Orleans and its levee defences. All of the Bathtub’s occupants live with the knowledge that one day the polar ice caps will probably melt and their land will be swallowed up by water. They are poor and live outside of American society as we know it and, despite their seemingly negative outlook, they remain content and happy. Their world is rocked when the floods finally come, though, in the form of what may or may not be Hurricane Katrina
Of course, there is no actual apocalypse here. However, through the eyes of a young girl whose whole world as she knows it has collapsed, the vibe is definitely so. The fantasy elements, particularly in the prehistoric beasts called aurochs that escape from the melted ice caps and head for the Bathtub and her, aid this end of the world feeling too. This make-believe through the eyes of a young child mixing with reality brings to mind Pans Labyrinth and Where the Wild Things Are. The difference in this movie, though, is that in those films the fantasy was an escape for the kids, whereas the aurochs in Beasts of the Southern Wild are part of the bad times, representing Hushpuppy’s sadness and, more particularly, fear.
The handheld cinematography and unknown actors, many of whom make their film debut here (in fact, Dwight Henry nearly turned down the role of Hushpuppy’s father, because he was too busy opening up a new bakery), creates a very documentary-like feeling to the proceedings, which helps bring the audience into character’s experiences. Wallis delivers her philosophical narration with a confidence that is full of a satisfyingly sentimental wisdom. Check out these gems, for instance; ‘I see that I am a little piece of a big, big universe, and that makes it right’ and ‘When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me flying around in invisible pieces.’
Dwight Henry (as Hushpuppy's dad) with Wallis.
The character’s aversion to the other world – of ‘civilisation’, behind the levee - manages to balance precariously between endearing and annoying. When genuine help is offered, they are offended, as if they would lose face or perhaps be scared of where they will be dumped when the kindness of others runs out. This mentality is understandable but hard to get your head around from a logical standpoint. It is difficult to not think of the film in a political sense. For such a rich and advanced country, the USA sure is backward (its imperialist nature, its lack of national health care, its death penalty, its slums, along with its sickeningly large financial inequality and alarmingly high infant mortality rate) and this film certainly highlights the very poor. If it weren’t for the American accents and English language in this film, the presumption would be that the story was set in the third world; definitely not just round the corner from New Orleans, USA. The fact that on the first day of shooting, the BP oil spillage occurred nearby, forcing the crew to have to manoeuvre round the cleanup operations to film, seems somehow fitting.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is not perfect. The character’s seem slightly too positive given their situation, almost giving the affluent population a relief from any guilt and some scenes seem a bit forced due to this. However, when it comes down to it, this is, quite simply, an extremely difficult film to dislike. The documentary feel, the intimate yet epic story and the endearing protagonist all go towards sucking you into the film emotionally, making you not care about any flaws it may well have. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a powerful and unique film and a definite must see.
Beasts of the Southern Wild will be shown at Broadway until 1 November 2012.
Beasts of the Southern Wild website