In a year that gives us new films from P.T. Anderson, Quintin Tarantino, Terrence Malick, Wes Anderson, David O. Russel, and Steven Spielberg, it’s fittingly ironic that the best of the lot might actually be this low-key fantasy from first-time director Behn Zeitlin. Perhaps best isn’t the right word (particularly given that half of the aforementioned films have not been released yet), but I have a hard time imagining that anybody is going to make a more singularly unique and viscerally moving film than Beasts of the Southern Wild. Scrapped together with a miniscule budget, a non-professional cast, and a director who doubles as his own writer and co-composer, the film pulses with raw youthful energy and a rebellious spirit that has gone all but missing in today’s corporate-controlled filmmaking industry. A crowd-pleaser despite its refusal to pander to the crowd, Beast is a film that builds its own universe from the ground up. Here, that universe takes the form of the film’s fictional island in the New Orléans Bayou known as “The Bathtub.” Located outside the levee walls, the “The Bathtub” sits in constant danger of flooding, and is consequently deemed uninhabitable by society at large. The people who do eke out an existence there do so by hunting and scrounging, all the while knowing that every storm represents a threat to their already-fragile survival.
Yet living on the cusp of oblivion also gives The Bathtub’s residence a special form of freedom. Until a temporary mid-film development, the government does not even seem aware that The Bathtub exists. This turns the community into an insular bubble where residents seem to live in complete freedom form the concerns of modern society. Few seem to have “jobs” in the modern sense of the word, living instead off of animals they either own or hunt. This gives residents of The Bathtub a sense of self-sufficient independence that at times appears invigorating. In the process The Bathtub comes across as its own isolated universe, one that is part Neverland and part third-world country. On the one hand, people in this community live in what we know as squalor – within the first ten minutes, we witness a child attempting to feed herself by frying a can of cat food. Yet they also seem to live in a constant state of perpetual celebration – adults seem to be drunk 24 hours a day, and community wide music-and-fireworks festivals are a nightly routine. The film makes surviving on the fringe of society seem thrilling, even as it refuses to undersell the gritty hardships that come with that world.
We see this dynamic encapsulated in Hushpuppy, the film’s young protagonist who embodies both the childlike and the fierce survival qualities of The Bathtub. Though vulnerable in her need for parental love and vivid in her imagination, Hushpuppy is nevertheless a hardened warrior of a child. She has been raised by her single father, Wink, though Wink does not so much raise his daughter as train her to survive in her wild environment. A fiercely independent alcoholic, Wink embodies both the best and worst qualities of The Bathtub. At his worst, he leaves his child for days, and gets drunk and nasty when he returns. At his best, he treats his daughter like a peer and nurtures her fighter instincts. Despite his volatile temperament, he clearly loves his daughter fiercely, and their bond ultimately gives the film its heaviest emotional weight. Hushpuppy loves her father and wants to echo his fighter’s spirit, but she also craves parental affection. Wink loves his daughter, but he knows painfully well how essential toughness is to survival in their world. His preferred way of bonding with Hushpuppy is to encourage her physical acts of strength, challenging her to arm wrestle or prompting her to pry open crabs with her bare hands (it’s telling that he only knows how to express approval in masculine terms, screaming “You the MAN, Hushpuppy!” when she succeeds at something). But as the film moves forward, both daughter and father’s shells begin to crack, and Wink and Hushpuppy’s efforts to negotiate tenderness with stoicism leads to some of the film’s most searingly moving sequences.
All of this is executed with incredible gusto from the people both behind and in front of the camera. As actors, both Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry give raw, piercing performances. I don’t usually hold stock in the neo-realist idea that non-professional actors automatically give the most “real” performances, but it’s hard to imagine professional actors making Hushpuppy and Wink seem more spontaneously alive than Wallis and Henry. And as a filmmaker, Zeitlin has the makings of a visionary. With the film’s emphasis on images from nature and guileless voiceover from its child protagonist, one might be tempted to draw comparisons to Terrence Malick. But Zeitlin is much grittier and looser in his style, and the film has an improvised feel that stands at odds with Malick’s immaculate imagery. Beautiful images don’t gracefully float by Zeitlin’s camera – they stumble past haphazardly, tripping over the images of grime and squalor that share the screen. The director manages to hold your head under filth for 90 minutes and still have you leave thinking you’ve just seen the most uplifting crowd-pleaser of the year. That takes a special breed of filmmaking magic, and it makes me excited to follow Zeitlin’s future career.
It’s rare for a director to score his own movie, and its even rarer for a director to competently score his movie. But in the case of Beasts of the Southern Wild, with a score co-written by Zeitlin with Dan Rohmer, it’s hard to imagine the film with any other music. Far from the typical low-key meandering that often plagues small indie films, the music unashamedly carries some of the film’s biggest moments. In a style best described as Cajun Minimalism, Zeitlin and Rohmer merge a small chamber ensemble with a Creole folk group “The Lost Bayou Rumblers.” In the process, they create a musical aesthetic that’s recognizable as film music but completely unique to the world they’ve created. The composers make an asset out of the limited ensemble, emphasizing the rough earthy timbre of every individual plucked string and guitar fret in ways that wouldn’t be possible with a full studio orchestra. They have also anchored the score to a powerful main theme, one that actually goes through major development as the film progresses. At times played as an intimate lullaby on the glockenspiel, at others as bold and heraldic anthem on the trumpets, the theme functions as a moving musical extension of Hushpuppy’s emotional life. The music is simple in its construction, to be sure, but Zeitlin and Rohmer have an uncanny ability to mine the simplest pieces for the biggest emotional impact. Like the film, the music is rough in its execution but vibrant with raw emotions. That balance between roughness and sweetness perhaps explains how both film and score manage to wear their hearts so blatantly on their sleeves without ever lapsing into sentimentality. And it at least partly explains the special magic that makes Beast of the Southern Wild one of the year’s most uniquely moving filmgoing experiences.
Film Rating: * * * * *
Score Rating: * * * *