6 year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives off the land with, but separately, from her father Wink (baker Dwight Henry) in 'The Bathtub,' a nature rich but risky area of Louisiana outside of the New Orleans levee. Hushpuppy's worries, like how the polar ice cap melt will affect her home, are those of a much older person, and yet they do not dampen the spirit of her kind, the "Beasts of the Southern Wild."
Cowriter (with Lucy Alibar)/director Benh Zeitlin is committed to regional filmmaking as part of New Orleans' Court 13 filmmaking collective and his debut, adapted from his friend Alibar's stage play 'Juicy and Delicious,' shows a distinct voice wedded to its environment as it addresses the global human emotional tie of man to his birthplace. It's not a perfect film, magical realism perhaps being a bit too pat for its location and it has more than a bit in common with "Where the Wild Things Are" besides, but he's gotten true and involving performances from Wallis and Henry, created a unique world to set them in and given them dialogue rooted in reality yet ofttimes poetic. All that and a Viking funeral.
'Up above the levee, they're all afraid of the water like a bunch of babies' Hush informs us by way of her dad. She's been raised to literally stick to her ground, despite the fact that it lies well below sea level. Hushpuppy lives in an abandoned school bus outfitted like her daddy's broken down old trailer ('her house' and 'his house'). She has a pet pig and a little dog and numerous chickens run about. The day's dinner usually consists of a plucked one pulled from an old cooler and thrown onto the ramshackle grill attached to one end of Wink's abode. Hushpuppy attends a chalet shaped schoolroom on the edge of the water where she learns about prehistoric aurochs from teacher/medicine woman Miss Bathsheeba (Indian Mardi Gras notable Gina Montana), but when the day is done, daddy doesn't come to fetch her. Hushpuppy lasts days on her own, but when daddy returns wearing a hospital gown and a bad temper, she resorts to the childish, burning down her 'house' in the process. Then the big storm comes.
Zeitlin's cobbled together production is a marvel of repurposing, just like the homes of the characters he is chronicling. When his old Chevy truck died, he used its bed with a couple of oil drums to create Wick and Hushpuppy's boat. The real Isle de Jean Charles provide post-Katrina devastation. Hogs were outfitted in 'costumes' to portray the Aurochs, making their way towards Hushpuppy after being set free by melting ice, and although the homemade quality of these fantasy sequences is evident, like someone Sweding a film that's never been made, they have a surreal, nightmarish vibe that fits the film's aesthetic.
But there are some unsettling aspects to Hushpuppy's odyssey that make one question the film's ultimate message. Wink is a dying man who has raised an extremely resourceful little girl, but he and his friends idea of life is self sustenance and copious amounts of alcohol. Wink announces that should he not be around, Hushpuppy should turn to his buddy Walrus (Lowell Landes), an older drunk who almost drowns walking out of his own front door. The entire group goes outlaw to blow a hole in the levee to lower their water levels after ducking mandatory evacuation, but when the law catches up, FEMA volunteers provide cleanliness, shelter, clothing, food and medical attention, all unwanted (Wallis in a blue pintucked dress, her hair combed, is another little girl entirely). Hushpuppy and three others around her age escape, swimming out to an old man's boat. He easily accepts his stowaways, taking them to the run down Elysian Fields to be mothered by and danced with old whores. Again this sequence at once is disturbing yet has an odd kind of warmth. A cook (Jovan Hathaway) who looks a lot like Hushpuppy's imaginings of her mother, creates something local and traditional which becomes the last thing Wink will eat. This odd fable pulls no punches in creating an extremely imperfect natural world and dares us to judge it.
“Daddy says if he ever got so old he couldn't drink beer, or catch catfish, that I had to put him in a boat, and set him on fire, so no one can come plug him into the wall.” This last is one of the film's best metaphors, Bathtub residents' seeing the medical tubes used to keep Wink alive as unnatural shackles. "Beasts of the Southern Wild" was the Winner of the 2011 Sundance Grand Jury and Cinematography awards and the Camera D'Or, given to the best first feature, at Cannes. It's a challenging work of art which demands respect even though the filmmaker may have not found enough common ground to connect his audience with his subject. There are moments of miserable muck and scenes of great beauty, but "Beasts of the Southern Wild" never quite achieves cinematic transcendence.
Little Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) lives at the end of the world with her sickly daddy Wink (Dwight Henry) on the wrong side of the levee in a Louisiana “town” called the Bathtub. He, with his harsh tough love, wants to prepare his little girl for a future without him and, in doing so, unleashes the “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
Tyro director/co-writer Benh Zeitlin takes his newcomer actors, Willis and Henry, and near surreal story (with Lucy Alibar) and comes up with an impressive feature debut – for himself and his two stars. He tells a hardboiled tale of the survival of forgotten people, left on the water–logged side of the levee to fend for them selves. It is a cautionary tale of both the fragility and resilience of man – in the guise of a six-year old girl.
Diminutive Wallis casts a giant shadow as we see the world through her innocent and wise eyes. Her daddy, Wink, is so poor that to be at the national poverty level would be a huge step up for the man. A coming storm threatens the Bathtub and its denizens and, when it hits, it wreaks havoc, flooding everything that is not up high on stilts. Wink, in his swan song gesture, gathers the other survivors in a plot to strike a blow against the Man and sabotage the levees. All the while, the aorochs, the mythical beasts, are rising up within Hushpuppy to save the day – or, destroy it.
Techs are first rate and the behind the camera crew do a fine job on a shoestring budget, particularly Ben Richardson’s fine lensing. Location setting, Terrebonne Parish LA, is a hard character in its own right and the story of survival fits it like a glove. There is an organic feel to the film on all levels with a couple of powerhouse performances by the stars Quvenzhane Wallis – this kid has an amazing on screen presence – and Dwight Henry. Helmer Zeitlin also garners richly hewn little performances by his bevy of amateur supporting actors that ooze realism.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is far more than a calling card for a promising new filmmaker. It is an accomplished work in its own right and an amazing debut on all fronts. I give it a B+.
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