The Bathtub is a place of myths and wonders, a broken down teardrop of Louisiana marsh and mud in"Beasts of the Southern Wild"and the setting for an extraordinary new drama whose fierceness, like its 6-year-old heroine Hushpuppy, grabs on and won’t let go.
Director Benh Zeitlin and his co-writer Lucy Alibar, a playwright whose “Juicy and Delicious” was the inspiration, have created characters that are wondrously indelible, distinctive of voice and set them inside a story that will unleash a devastating hurricane, and a flood of emotions, before it is done.
This is a remarkably skilled first feature for the filmmakers and its fusion of fable and soulful reality has been widely embraced on the festival circuit starting with Sundance in January, where it won the top prize. Last month it added the prestigious Camera d’Or at Cannes, marking it essentially the best of the best, and no doubt more notice will deservedly follow.
“Beasts” is both a modest and ambitious film. In a sense, it tells nothing more than a fundamental story about the bond between parent and child forged by the trials and triumphs that frame the process of growing up. But Hushpuppy’s journey becomes a window into the culture of the dispossessed, the influence of a close-knit community and the empowerment that is possible when a child’s imagination is encouraged to roam free.
Like other boundary-breaking indies before it — say the cold world of 2010’s “Winter’s Bone"with Jennifer Lawrence’s teenager forced into a fast and fraught adulthood, or Wes Anderson’s lovely new"Moonrise Kingdom” that dipped heavily into the surreal for its tale of kids at odds with the lives they’ve been handed — “Beasts” is yet another unforgettable cinematic treatise on the difficulties of childhood.
The story begins on an ordinary day in Hushpuppy’s life, played with a stunning tenacity by young Quvenzhane Wallis. She lives in a jerry-built shack in a backwater bayou. It’s raised on stilts in deference to the water that can rise deadly and fast. There’s no sign of a mother, though her presence will be felt at every turn. Her father, Wink (Dwight Henry, a New Orleans baker making an impressive acting debut), lives within shouting distance in the rusted out shell of a bus. It is a reflection of the relationship — there is love, but a certain distance as well.
Hushpuppy is precocious, always wondering about her place in the universe. When not dealing with the gritty reality of the Bathtub, her flights of fancy fill the screen with magic, from the particles floating in the air to visions of the Ice Age and the long extinct Aurochs that Hushpuppy is convinced will rise again.
Wink is a wiry, irascible man who has a habit of doling out fatherly wisdom in impatient angry bursts. He drinks too much and laughs too loud and nearly always in the company of the other residents of Bathtub, a collection of hardscrabble types who end most nights passed out from the local hooch. They are a racial mix and color blind, tightly bound by their poverty and sense of place. They have names like Jean Battiste (Levy Easterly), Walrus (Lowell Landes) and Little Jo (Pamela Harper), and live by their wits and what they can catch from the sea. Miss Bathsheeba (Gina Montana) is the local teacher, artist and herbalist who puts resilience right up there with the other Rs in terms of what kids need to know.
Hushpuppy is an artist of sorts herself, sketching out the events in her life on whatever surface is handy, always trying to get to the heart of things. The heart that is the most troubled is Wink’s. His failing health, the approaching storm and why people choose to stay in the face of certain disaster will drive what happens in the film.
Although there is much about the real world that colors “Beasts,” the movie lives and breathes in fabulistic realms. Typical is an evocative scene that comes when things have gone from bad to worse, as they do several times. In this case, Hushpuppy sets out in search of something elusive, a way to fill the void of the missing mother. It leads her to a place of unexpected comfort that is wrapped in a warm gauzy glow.
One of the more ridiculous moments is furnished by Wink and his cronies, who devise a plan to rescue the Bathtub that involves an alligator, some ingenuity and the levee. Throughout, Zeitlin keeps the serious, the surreal and the just plain crazy in balance.
“Beasts” was shot on location in Louisiana and pulls much of its cast from the locals, including the rare find of Wallis. She’s a string bean of a girl with the eyes of Wednesday’s child of woe and the indomitable spirit of a warrior. When she pounds a table and yells “I am ‘da man’ it comes from such an authentic place that it’s clear this is a serious talent to be reckoned with.
She is the film’s central narrator and the dialogue the writers have given her reaches a level of poetic balladry that nearly sings of grit and determination. That tone is matched by the music. Composer Dan Romer and Zeitlin collaborated to create a more ethereal Cajun sound, as flavorful and lively as ever, but somehow softened by its orchestral seasoning.
The Bathtub itself comes at us from ground level, a patchwork of scavenged tin and wood rising out of the mud. It’s all a little larger than life as seen from Hushpuppy’s point of view. Director of photography Ben Richardson, whose work drew special notice at Sundance, creates an energy field around Hushpuppy. The camera was hand-held but steady as a rock and the result is a lyrical grace that turns detritus and rot into things of beauty.
Production designer Alex DiGerlando’s attention to detail adds another noteworthy layer in bringing the place to life, every scrap of tin looks hand salvaged and the bed of a pickup that has become Wink’s boat is a true wonder. The actual beasts of Hushpuppy’s imagination were the province of Ray Tintori and are magnificent in their marauding.
Though the storm that hits the Bathtub is wild in its devastation, it is also a perfect one. For despite the travails, indeed perhaps because of them, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is infused with an excess of love and the unquenchable spirit of a young girl named Hushpuppy.