Debut Filmmaker Ben Zeitlin’s Camera D’Or [Best First Film] and Sundance Grand Jury Prize (Drama) winner Beasts of the Southern Wild is a remarkably vivid and arresting piece of cinema. Set in the future where the southern hemisphere is all but under water and a levee has been built protecting the north from the rising waters; we’re introduced to Hush Puppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) a little girl living in the vibrant, nihilistic euphoria of 'The Bathtub'. This bayou community cut off from the rest of the world is defiant to stay in their home despite their inevitable demise. A storm approaches and the ice caps melt, and release prehistoric beasts that descend on the Bathtub.
The opening act of Beasts is an assault on the senses. The bayou landscape is littered with garbage, structurally flimsy shanties, and malnourished animals navigating their way through the obstacles and the surrounding wilderness. The production design for the structures and their watercrafts that are patchworks of past vehicles and structures are so original yet familiar. We’re introduced to the waif figure of Hush Puppy stalking between structures and our Aural sense are engaged by her trouncing through the brush, the dinner bell ringing, animals making noises – or attuned to her investigative listening to the beating hearts of the life forms of the area. Wallis’ Hush Puppy is wondrous. You’re anchored to her subjective experience of the animals (human and otherwise) that occupy her environment. Wallis’ is a sponge in this environment, learning the lay of the land from the crazed behaviour of those that occupy the ‘bath tub’. She’s desperate for the warmth of her absent mother in the wake of the storm. It’s the best child performance that I think I’ve ever seen.
The ‘Bath tub’ community is full of jarring eccentrics and oddballs, none more so than Wink, Hush Puppy’s father, who portrays some of the least orthodox parenting ever. Wink (Dwight Henry) is a lost and crazed drunkard of a man, mostly burdened by Hush Puppy’s youth and vulnerability. He’s only equipped to train her to be a dominant alpha male of their ‘Bath Tub’ tribe. Hush Puppy’s hostile and strange world, which on the surface denies, love and warmth, encourages care, love and tenderness in the tribes intimate moments.
Zeitlin’s wild (forgive the pun) imagination lulls you into a hypnotic delirium that is rudely awakened by authorities North of the levy demanding a mandatory evacuation of the ‘Bath Tub’ in the wake of the flood. And whatever environmental messages one may extrapolate from the setting, premise etc. are done deftly enough that you're not being preached to.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a sublime, dark, audacious, modern fairy tale. And it’s all the more exciting that it’s the premiere of a rare talent of filmmaker Ben Zeitlin. See it, get lost in the wilderness.
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman
Directed: Benh Zeitlin
Written by: Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin
Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry and Levy Easterly
Beasts of the Southern Wild was released in the USA on 20th January and will be released in Australia on the 12th July 2012.