Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) – directed by Benh Zeitlin

On Thursday night I went along to the opening of the New Zealand Film Festival at Auckland’s Civic Theatre. For those who don’t know The Civic Theatre is a large heritage theatre seating over two thousand people in central Auckland, New Zealand. First opened on 20 December 1929, it was reopened in 2000 after a major renovation and conservation effort. Seeing a film in a large olden style hall is something I haven’t done since I was a teenager, and being spoilt these days with the hi-tech audiovisual complexes and home theatres I was curious to see how the acoustics and and visuals would hold up. Little did I know that the visual and audio onslaught of Beasts of the Southern Wild would be just the film to test it. This was going to be something special.

Adam Kempinaar from Film Spotting accurately described Beasts of the Southern Wild as “Terrence Malick meets Maurice Sendak”.  His astute observation is a comment on the way Beasts explores similar themes to the work of Malick (Tree of Life) and Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are), both in style and narrative. Beasts of the Southern Wild is directed by first timer Benh Zeitlin, who also co-composed the excellent score.  I won’t attempt to read this film politically although it does touch on topics of homelessness, and global warming. Instead for me, Beasts is about the world as illustrated through a six year old’s eyes.

Co-screened by Lucy Alibar, the story is set post Hurricane Katrina, and follows six year old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) who lives with her dad (Dwight Henry) in a New Orleans delta dubbed the “Bathtub”. Ostensibly squatters in this isolated and off limits area, the locals carve out a visceral, yet noble, living. They learn to survive through hardships that come from a subsistent lifestyle, denizens of a harsh environment that lies below the flood-line. This is a physically tough world where Hushpuppy often has to fend for herself; a world where she is not allowed to cry, all the while coping with the disappearance of her mother and dealing with her ailing dad. Around her other children are being brought up as the titular wild beasts, in abject poverty and squalor but with a notable code. Tension between filth and beauty is a central theme as Beasts explores life beneath the dinner table where the children eat like animals. Yet amongst this filthy existence there is a sense of beauty and structure. The chaotic mise-en-scene lets the camera constantly roam and seek out new information as it follows Hushpuppy. It depicts so vividly her understanding of the world she lives in. Hand held cameras are used to great effect to climb inside her experiential world.  If you suffer from motion sickness you might find these scenes difficult to watch, which unfortunately I did.  However, there is no doubting its effectiveness as Hushpuppy’s world washes effortlessly over you. You really get a sense of her logic, the way she normalises what she experiences, and her use of fantasy as a coping mechanism.  It swept me along … I just couldn’t help myself. I believed Hushpuppy’s world. I believed her reality.

Right from its opening sequence Beasts is an utter smorgasbord that mirrors its rich environment. The rhythm of its editing, the cinematography, the attention to audible details, and the wonderful score are all exceptional. But it is Zeitlin’s ability to create genuine authenticity that stood out most. At no stage did I feel that I was being manipulated or told what to look at, or where to look, or how to read a certain scene. This bold transparency must be difficult to achieve. And to expound this authenticity through his non-professional actors is both a credit to Zeitlin and his acting entourage. Beasts of Southern Wild is a magically realist slice of Americana and is an example of a director who is a master of his artifice.