In Beasts of the Southern Wild, a tough cookie named Hushpuppy stares down a giant creature that looks like a warthog. The behemoth that emerges from an ice cap — and Hushpuppy’s imagination — huffs and puffs inches from Hushpuppy’s scrunched-up little face, but it cannot defeat her.
The wide-angle shot of the beast confronting the tiny afro-headed girl — played with fierce conviction by first-timer Quvenzhané Wallis — captures a moment of triumph that will play over and over in film montages to come.
The same audacity fuels Beasts, winner of both Cannes and Sundance awards. For his first full-length feature, writer/director Benh Zeitlin presents to us a cast of mostly non-pros, and he takes on a coming-of-age story with multiple allegories about nature, life, death, survival and civilization, from the point of view of a child, adding historical footnotes and an unwieldy setting amid disaster-wrought Louisiana.
Zeitlin’s bottom-up style of creative collaboration is an undertaking to behold. He came up with his portion of the script as he went along, showing us the zesty spirit of Southern Lousiana "hold-outs" with masterful sceneography (including a truck converted into a boat!) dilapidated shanties, rotting animal corpses and other remnants of destruction along the bayou. He sat in with the composer Dan Romer, and he took input on dialogue from a child actor five years younger than the role originally conceived — a non-actor in a cast full of them that he auditioned at an elementary school after nine months of casting. Using voiceover narration, the film goes from wobbly handheld shots to dazzling majesty.
In today’s Instagram/CGI times of everyman manipulation, it takes a special combination of humility and bravado to let go of control and let a movie make itself. We’ve seen it with Werner Herzog and others, but Zeitlin takes his organic approach beyond docudrama to mythic proportions. While some may consider the result the overreach of a young filmmaker, Zeitlin’s vision takes shape effectively with wonder and believability. His serendipity and respect for organic storytelling infuse the script, which started as an adaptation of a play, Juicy and Delicious, by Lucy Alibar, co-writer of the screenplay, too.
The story’s setting is a ramshackle town called The Bathtub, a fictional island off the bottommost edge of Louisiana. Miles away from the mainland and mainstream culture, the Bathtub gets its inspiration from the Isle de John Charles. The area’s feisty, salty survivors, who dwindled from 200 families to around 20, motivated Zeitlin to make the movie.
Hushpuppy is a force of nature herself. Her mix of vulnerability and bravery make her a lovable lead, best illustrated by her imaginary and daily interactions with her parents. Her mother, who abandoned her as an infant, speaks to her in the form of a maternal figure, fashioned with a sports jersey and cardboard. Her father, Wink, played with unbelievable nuance by Dwight Henry — an owner and operator of a New Orleans bakery — is a hotheaded, stubborn drunk who endures more than his self-inflicted disease. By turns distant and tender, the exchanges between Hushpuppy and Wink offer some of the best moments of the film.
In the film’s third act, the Bathtub dwellers — among them funny old drunks, orphans and Hushpuppy’s bohemian schoolteacher — narrowly survive a devastating storm. Outside the Bathtub, settings include a dehumanizing evacuation shelter, a fishing boat and a brothel, where call girls turn into pretend moms to the Bathtub orphans for a magical moment. These dreamlike scenarios add color and Odyssey-like adventure to Beasts' wildly humane tale.