Born on the Bayou
Directed by Benh Zeitlin
Starring Quvenzhane Wallis, Dwight Henry, Gina Montana, Levy Easterly
Our scene is set in The Bathtub, a ramshackle, poverty-stricken swamp community separated from New Orleans by a vast levee. Our protagonist is Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), a tiny six-year-old girl who lives there with her father, the fiercely independent Wink (Dwight Henry). The antagonist is, well, the world: the storms and rising waters that threaten to drown The Bathtub, the nameless disease that threatens to end Wink’s life, the powerful forces that shape a universe that is mysterious and unknowable to a child’s mind.
Director Benh Zeitlin’s first film is a difficult one to categorise – call in pre-apocalyptic magical realist allegory, if you have to. It’s a complex and nuanced work, set in a fully-realised world that is at once both instantly identifiable and strangely mystical. The shadow of Katrina hangs over the proceedings, and the omnipresent threat of melting icecaps are a reference to climate change, but the film defies easy political identification; the stoic, hardscrabble existence of its characters, who kitbash together what they need from the scraps of the old world like Mad Max-style nomads, stand in defiance of both right wing economic rationalism and left wing caretaker social reform.
All that is subtext, though. At its heart, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a classic hero’s journey, and the hero is the defiantly brave, endlessly inquisitive Hushpuppy, as embodied by young Wallis’s frankly astonishing debut acting turn.
Much of the film’s unique flavour comes from Zeitlin’s decision to frame the events of the narrative exclusively through Hushpuppy’s childish point of view, with all the broken and beautiful logic that that implies. Wink’s explanation that Hushpuppy’s mother simply “swam away” one day is incorporated into her own personal mythology, as are stories she hears of the melting icecaps releasing frozen prehistoric aurochs to ravage the world, and each is given as much import and resonance as the “realer” elements of the story. To Hushpuppy, the supernatural and fantastic have as much relevance as the ordinary and material, and that is the world presented by the film.
Wallis is supported by an ensemble of laudable performances, all drawn from local residents who had never acted before (Dwight Henry, for example, is baker and father of five). The choice to use non-professionals is a judicious one, their naturalistic rhythms and lived-in faces adding to the overall texture and verisimilitude of the piece.
Beasts of the Southern Wild represents the auspicious birth of a singular vision. Zeitlin and his collaborators have crafted something remarkable here; a tangible, granular, and immensely moving modern day fairytale that speaks truth about the world we live in, while still delivering a powerful, archetypal story. In plain English, it’s a wonderful film, and one you should definitely take the time to seek out.
(First published in X-Press issue 1335 12/09/2012)