Lyrical, transcendent 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' is an impeccably detailed slice of modern
Beasts of the Southern Wild Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Screenplay: Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar, based on the play Juicy and Delicious, by Alibar
Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Lowell Landes, Pamela Harper, Gina Montana
and Levy Easterly
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 31 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)
The forgotten and the displaced have been pushed out to the edge of the world by a great flood.
There is no ark - except a sort of inside-out version, a bayou floating around the edge of
civilization known as The Bathtub, its inhabitants a tightly knit community of fierce
independents, equal parts joyful and unruly.
It's only fitting that a film which indulges and celebrates myths and mythmaking is itself a kind
of inverted re-imagining of one of the most famous and enduring mythological stories we have -
not to mention the most famous natural disaster in all of literature. Combine that allegorically
with Hurricane Katrina, the most famous natural disaster of modern times, and you get the
majestic, genuinely magical backdrop of Beasts of the Southern Wild, director Benh Zeitlin's
virtuoso debut feature.
Working with a makeshift cast and crew (who make for an invaluable team of collaborators)
Zeitlin has delicately fastened together a wholly original fable from fairly traditional parts - the
cosmic balance of the universe, the indomitability of the human spirit, etc. - and made them feel
A great deal of that urgency rests on the shoulders of newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis, a 6-year-old firecracker whose uncanny naturalism provides the film with its perfect centerpiece. She
plays a wild child of the bayou named Hushpuppy, raised by her father Wink (Dwight Henry), a
man who drinks too much and screams too loud but has a forceful devotion to his daughter's
protection. Their emotional bond is unbreakable, but his tough love is sometimes too tough. In
his mind, it's necessary - he's only preparing her for the type of world she will some day inherit
on her own.
The levees erected along the banks of The Bathtub have relegated Hushpuppy, Wink and
everyone else second-class citizens - or, perhaps more accurately, not citizens at all but outcasts,
abandoned and left for dead. Salvation comes only in the form of their own defiant self-reliance,
which they cling to like the life preserver the modern world never bothered to throw their way.
Beasts is seen through Hushpuppy's gaze and filtered through her imagination, her stream-of-consciousness voiceover offering interpretations and insights both childish and prescient.
Residents of The Bathtub have their own myths and legends, not the least of which is that of the
aurochs - ancient creatures renowned for their ferocity and brutality and who, in one of the
film's many gently fantastical flourishes, have thawed from the ice and are making their way
back toward civilization. Though many elements of the movie reminded me of Where the Wild
Things Are (both Maurice Sendak's book and Spike Jonze's adaptation), the scenes with the
aurochs make the case for that comparison most obviously.
There's an intense musicality to the film's rhythms, both in Zeitlin
and cinematographer Ben Richardson's beautiful compositions of Southern Gothic portraiture, as
well as the score (which, naturally, infuses various New Orleans elements and which also has
shades of Nick Cave's work on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford)
and narration. The voiceover is just another series of beats, just another instrument - and it
works on an emotional level without being too precocious. Hushpuppy is not telegraphing the
story nor dictating the terms on which we take it, but simply dealing with the realities she's faced
with, organizing it in her mind, reconciling that which her innocence prevents her from fully
It's a balancing act, sure, but Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar (from whose play Beasts is
loosely adapted) use it intelligently and with real purpose. They also blend it brilliantly with the
film's visual cues, which have a sense of ethereal wonder that has drawn deserved comparison to
Terrence Malick and early David Gordon Green.
Everything on screen is infused with the spirit of myth, each moist, orange and brown-tinted
frame subjectively capturing the images and moments the film is affectionately weaving together
to create its own myth. This is a celebration of personal history wrapped up in a fairy tale, one
that glides along unpredictable currents like the slapdash riverboats and shacks in which the
characters make their home. Even the embedded memories and stories are embellished with the
weight and mystery of legend.
Throughout the film we get the sense we're witnessing a piece of classic mythology unfold
before our eyes. It feels like discovery, and it leads to a magnificent finale that strikes a gently
powerful note of courage and human fortitude (in a moment of pseudo-surrealism) before
concluding on a devastating (yet uplifting) emotional chord.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is both a sincere ode to the spirit of New Orleans and the southern
Delta, and a startlingly unique piece of magic realism. There is uncommon poetry here - and a
sense of ecstatic joy that's infectious.