Bursting onto the indie film scene with the same relentless ferocity as the maelstrom that ravages the movie's tight-knit island community of Bathtub is Beasts of the Southern Wildand it's a force of nature that you can't help but get swept up in. Tense, tragic and filled with a sense of wonder rarely found on a modern movie screen, Beasts leaves a lasting impression long after Dan Romer's affecting score closes out the film and the curtain falls.
Before winning both the prestigious Caméra d'Or award at this year's Cannes Film Festival and the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Beasts began life as a portion of a one-act play from director Benh Zeitlin and his writing partner, Lucy Alibar. Shot on 16-millimeter film by a small crew of Zeitlin collaborators who dubbed themselves "Court 13," the film boasts some of the most striking imagery of any released so far this year. It reveals both the indignant cruelty of the natural world and the simple, symbiotic beauty inherent in the cycle of life and death. It deserves praise for its eye-popping cinematography alone. In fact, the creaky, water-damaged texture of Bathtub has far more depth and three-dimensionality to it than any computer-crafted blockbuster that requires gimmicky, 3-D enabling glasses.
The film chronicles the exploits of Hushpuppy, a young girl who lives with her father in a bayou collective off the coast of Louisiana. Impoverished and in perpetual danger of monsoons, the extended family that makes up Bathtub is cheery despite everything. Early on, Hushpuppy even remarks that Bathtub has "more holidays than any other place in the world." Certainly, the seeming abundance of alcohol and seafood can't hurt. The film effortlessly switches between depicting the gritty, somewhat frightening reality of life in Bathtub and the magical, wide-eyed astonishment that only the perspective of the resilient, imaginative Hushpuppy could bring to such a world.
Numerous characters in Beasts service the film's tough-but-true, "this is how life works" mantra, including its brave protagonist. The journey Hushpuppy must take is a difficult one, made even more challenging by the search for a long-lost mother, the increasing presence of ancient, tusk-adorned monsters called Aurochs and the prospect of facing the mortality of her gruff but well-meaning father. No small potatoes for a 6 year old. More than up to the task of portraying this pint-sized warrior-poet is 8-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis, who was reportedly chosen for the role after revealing a talent for reading, screaming and burping on command (skills that all come in handy throughout the course of the film, trust me).
While Wallis's gentle, endearing narration and bold, earnest portrayal of Hushpuppy is the standout performance of the film, bakery-owner-turned-actor Dwight Henry also manages an impressive turn as the precocious tyke's tortured father, Wink. Although he almost always appears with a beer in hand and initially comes across as cruel and taciturn, it soon becomes apparent that Wink's tough love is a more than necessary evil in the damp, peril-filled swamp of the Bathtub. In many ways, the tumultuous but candid relationship between Hushpuppy and her father makes up the film's brazen yet softly-beating heart. Several scenes featuring the two will leave a few squalls of their own, albeit the kind that usually manifest in tear ducts.
As far as noteworthy debut films go, Beasts is one for the books. The name Benh Zeitlin is one any cinefile worth their popcorn salt should be keeping an eye on. Moviegoers are promised a visually stunning and emotionally engaging experience despite a seemingly miniscule 92-minute run time. And "Best Actress" Oscar buzz for an 8 year old? Through the whimsical and inspiring lens of Hushpuppy, anything is possible.
Beasts of the Southern Wild continues at the Wilma Theatre.