If there’s one name that’s set to come tumbling, mispronounced from the mouths of many a red carpet commentator during the next awards season, it’s surely that of Quvenzhané Wallis, eight year old star of director Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature Beasts of the Southern Wild. Already garlanded with innumerable superlatives since the film’s Sundance premiere earlier this year, hers is a truly remarkable performance in a film that defies easy categorisation; a lyrical slice of magic-realism that alternately emphasises both elements of such a description.
Unashamedly weird, yet never self-consciously so, Zeitlin deftly balances naturalism and allegory in depicting a community’s marginalised existence on the wrong side of the New Orleans levees. If its ecological message may at times feel a little strong-armed into the fabric of the film, there’s a keen imagination behind it at play, laying down grand, evocative images in place of expositional or subtextually weighted commentary from his characters.
Prehistoric creatures rising out of frozen graves, explosives packed into bellies of crocodiles, history lessons illustrated with tattooed thighs, floating brothels staffed by missing mothers; Zeitlin packs his film with images and conceits at once lyrical (Ben Richardson’s Super-16mm lensing is a thing to behold) and self-mythologising. The world of The Bathtub, an isolated, impoverished bayou community south of New Orleans in which Hushpuppy (Wallis) and her father Wink (Dwight Henry) make their home, is a place intrinsically fused to the landscape and the water, where life is a constant struggle and pets are never far from the menu.
The romantic, cosmically charged musings of Hushpuppy as she reflects on her own Edenically perceived existence, soon threatened by the arrival of a furious storm (Katrina?), flit between the practical and the naively poetic. Her fraught relationship with her father which provides the emotional backbone to the narrative, one in which intangible concepts such as life and love are as fragile and transitory as the physical world in which they’re encompassed, frames the film as a coming-of-age tale of sorts. The tough-love upbringing administered by the dying Wink, the Twain-like, river-bound communal living and the hard lessons on self-sufficiency all serve to give Hushpuppy the strength to stand up and confront her fears, those both real and imagined. Zeitlin’s literalisations of these destructive forces of fear, culminating in Hushpuppy’s stirring last stand, are stunningly realised, with the early magic-realist styling that recalled the writing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (via the Southern Gothic sensibilities of Faulkner in its tone and language) transforming into something closer to a hybrid of that of Maurice Sendak and Toni Morrison.
A native New Yorker who moved to New Orleans to make his short film Glory at Sea in the aftermath of Katrina, Zeitlin was at the forefront of the Court 13 Collective, a community-based arts organisation made up of local residents. Beasts of the Southern Wild is populated entirely with such members, non-actors making up the cast in its entirety, with the magnificent Quvenzhané Wallis chosen from over 3,500 auditionees. This communal spirit is one echoed thematically through the film itself, and a cursory glance through the crew lists finds many working on their first feature alongside Zeitlin.
This is a beautifully crafted film, filled to the brim with big, bold ideas and images. Such a refreshingly unique debut that resists genre pigeonholing is one to be lauded, even through its clunkier beats, an immediately evocative sense of place and the relationships therein deftly rendered. As much as Wallis deserves all the acclaim already coming her way, it’d be a real shame if it overshadows the excellent work from everyone else involved, a collaboration borne out of community in the wake of devastation is something to be celebrated in any instance, even more so when the by-product is a film as good as this.