Movies have the power to transport us to different worlds. Benh Zeitlin‘s Beasts of the Southern Wild transports us to a world we never dreamt before and beyond our imagination. It is a world wrapped in poetry, wonder, and magic. It is a work of breathtaking scope, vision, and confidence. It is a story bursting with life and death, rage and tranquility, fear and bravery, and all of it delivered through a magnificent score, thoughtful cinematography, and on the shoulders of its child star. It is an intellectual feast even though it sometimes leaves the emotional moments malnourished. But it is a movie unlike anything you’ve seen in recent years and it is a movie you must see.
Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father Wink (Dwight Henry) live in “The Bathtub”, a land unto itself on the other side of the New Orleans levy. The people of the Bathtub pride themselves on their self-sufficiency and staying away from the cloistered, coddled lives of outsiders. The world of the Bathtub is held together with scrap metal, wooden planks, and the spirit of its community. The coming flood that will drown their houses and send them adrift is not the apocalypse but the beginning of a new odyssey. Several story threads runt hroughout, but the film mostly examines daily life in The Bathtub and the new challenges and new revelations it presents for its young protagonist.
Zeitlin opens his movie with a bravura opening sequence as we meet Hushpuppy, get a sense of her narration and voice, and then see how her community explodes with life as gorgeous music provides a rural yet symphonic quality to her journey. The opening provides a powerful and necessary hook to lead us across a movie that will eschew traditional narrative and character development for something abstract and literary. Beasts is never obtuse nor is it convoluted. But it’s immensely difficult because it challenges the audience with every single frame. It’s an intellectually demanding film because it’s charging off in its own direction with absolute confidence and we must keep our minds running at full speed to catch up.
It would be an exhausting proposition if Zeitlin hadn’t made his movie so damn compelling. We’re absolutely enraptured by the world he’s created. At times, it feels like The Bathtub, not Hushpuppy, is the main character and she is merely its voice. Beasts of the Southern Wild spins a rural setting into a rich and vibrant land. A sunken house becomes a houseboat and its roof of wooden spikes points defiantly against the sky. Even a great flood can’t stop the survivors from throwing another party and reaffirming life. As Hushpuppy tells us at the beginning of the movie, the people of The Bathtub get far more holidays than us poor souls on the other side of the levy. For Hushpuppy and her community, the days are truly holy because they celebrate life. Of all the things it explores, Beasts of the Southern Wild is foremost a celebration of life and all of its wonder and devastation.
The celebration comes alive in the astounding score, visuals, and performances. The music of Beasts of the Southern Wild is so tremendous that you’ll be furious about it not being available for purchase when you leave the theater. The cinematography is always in sync with the emotional tone of the scene. Zeitlin knows when to go for the intimate and when to go for the operatic. And then he asks Wallis to give voice to it all. Her performance is pure and completely free of self-awareness. Her narration is like a child reading a book report as she relates to us all that she knows. When Hushpuppy speaks to us, her wisdom is matter-of-fact, but not in a cloying out-of-the-mouths-of-babes fashion. She speaks in the poetry of her world so we can accept such lyrical and thoughtful words being spoken by a child.
However, Beasts is so finely tuned and so intellectually satisfying that sometimes it forgets to breathe. We become enraptured by the world and the marvelous direction, but we start to disconnect from Hushpuppy’s struggle. Her narration sometimes puts us at a distance, and we don’t feel the impact of her turbulent relationship with Wink. We’re utterly captivated by what that relationship symbolizes, how it relates to Hushpuppy’s arc, and how it relates to her understanding of family, dependence, and independence, but we don’t feel the emotional power that comes from a father screaming at his child and treating her like a boy. But Beasts of the Southern Wild finishes as strong as it starts and the ending packs the emotional wallop we’ve craved for most of the runtime.
As a technical and literary achievement, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a marvel to behold. It is a movie that leaves your brain rattled and trying to sort out your thoughts before you just give up and realize that you’ll require a second viewing and a pause button. But for all of its majesty and how deeply it sucks the viewer into its singular world, it can still keep us at arm’s length. Our minds sit in awe, but our hearts stir to feel the same power.
For all of our coverage of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my Sundance reviews so far: