I think I could make a Top 50 list of movies that Beasts of the Southern Wild — the feature-film debut of NYC-via-New Orleans director Benh Zeitlin, which won prizes at both Sundance and Cannes — reminds me of. But that doesn't mean this isn't still perhaps the most original film of the year.
Uniting the beauty-in-rural-decay sensibility of films such as Gummo, Winter's Bone, and George Washington with the grubby, tactile fantasy sensibility of Terry Gilliam, Zeitlin and his colleagues in the Court 13 production company concoct a Hurricane Katrina-informed fable about a proud, imperiled community, told from the perspective of 6-year-old resident named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis).
Hushpuppy, as she tells us in Terrence Malick-style voiceover, lives in "The Bathtub" with her overburdened daddy, Wink (Dwight Henry). The Bathtub is a diverse, downscale community on an island of sorts, surrounded by waters that separate it from a more affluent, generally unseen community on the other side of a levee (where "people afraid of the water, like a bunch of babies"). When rain comes and flood waters rise, submerging the Bathtub, the residents band together to survive but refuse to leave their home. ("They think we all gonna drown down here. But we ain't goin' nowhere.") Meanwhile, the cataclysm also unleashes prehistoric beasts — Aurochs, here presented as giant, horned wild boars — from within the earth.
But Beasts is less about plot than about visceral experience. Zeitlin's ambition is inspiring. It's so much easier to make your low-budget, regional indie a visually basic talkfest. And while there are some regional-indie talkfests this year I like better — like the soon-to-open Your Sister's Sister — I greatly admire Zeitlin's attempt at making something so bold with minimal resources.
Zeitlin keeps the camera low and close and often on the move, looking up into the action in a way that makes the film come across as an almost physical experience. And the pace is constant, washing over you like the flood waters covering the road in the final shot or like Zeitlin's stirring, omnipresent, sometimes overbearing score. I instantly adored the blatantly low-tech effects at the film's most fantastical moment, which seem to defiantly assert that it's better for special effects to look interesting than to look real. And anchoring it all is the undeniable Wallis, an untrained young actress who holds the screen at all times.
It's easy to see how a lot of people get swept away by Beasts of the Southern Wild, but it can wear on you too. I've seen the film twice now, and while the style is striking, it becomes monotonous, as does Henry's scream-y non-performance as Hushpuppy's overwhelmed father.
It's a bracing, expressionist burst of Southern exoticism informed by the filmmakers' proximity to their material but also by their status as relative outsiders perhaps just a little too impressed by the colorfulness of their adopted home — it's right there in the title, in triplicate. But even if you aren't able to give yourself up to it, Beasts of the Southern Wild still leaves you with many of the year's most memorable images: A little girl running through the woods with Roman candles in each outstretched arm. A pick-up truck bed converted into a boat. Hushpuppy scribbling drawings on the side of a cardboard box while hiding inside, like a new form of cave painting.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Opening Friday, July 27th