Last Thursday Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Cinema Festival offered New Yorkers a sneak preview of the highly anticipated indie film Beasts of the Southern Wild. This stunning narrative, which will be released in New York and Los Angeles on Wednesday June 27, offers a whimsical glimpse into a defiant community faced with the challenges of a natural catastrophe in the bayou south, all told from the perspective of a six-year-old girl.
Beasts is set in the fabled Bathtub, somewhere ambiguously located on the bayou, in southern Louisiana. The story, as seen from the perspective of a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy, is one of loss, love and above all perseverance. With an impending “storm” looming, and eventually hitting the Bathtub, Beasts tells the story of a strong-willed group of people that won’t leave their homes, no matter what may come. Though not explicitly linked to any specific natural disaster, it’s hard to separate the massive storm that hits the Bathtub from any one of the hurricanes that has ravaged southern Louisiana in the past few years.
The film is also a poetic homage to the people of the bayou, a people wholly rooted in place and community. Their strong commitment to staying in their homes celebrates both the Bathtub and the unique spot in the world that birthed this tenacious community. Beasts is about commitment to where you’re from and what formed you, no matter the circumstances. But it’s especially about perseverance utilizing whatever limited means you may have, in this case resourcefulness and some rowdy gatherings (at one point Hushpuppy states: "...the Bathtub has more holidays than the whole rest of the world").
Beyond the storm, the film also tells of the tough-love relationship between a dying single father, Wink, and his young daughter Hushpuppy. Despite it’s heavy content, Beasts remains entirely whimsical in nature, and transports us to the mind of the precocious Hushpuppy as she tries to understand the catastrophic events unfolding around her.
The film is a product of a “community based, grassroots filmmaking army” known as Court 13, and it’s evident throughout Beasts that this group of people lived every detail of the story. From constructing a boat made out of a truckbed, to the music (stunning, enthralling and utterly unforgettable) to the on-location filming, this collective of people and their dedication to both the place and the story is the driving force behind its success. The New York Times reported that director Benh Zeitlin’s sister Eliza lived in Wink’s shack as she built it. It is efforts like this that make Beasts so wholly rooted in the place of the story, and as a result successful in its narration. It’s an honest film that was achieved through the dedication of this collective of visionaries to both the story and place.
Nowhere are the efforts of Zeitlin and Court 13 more fruitful than in their selection of actors. No professionals were used in the film. Instead, Quvenzhané Wallis, who plays Hushpuppy, was selected from nearly 4,000 young Louisiana girls, and Dwight Henry, who plays Wink, was a baker from New Orleans. Both give stunning performances, and bring understanding through personal experience to the film. Their breathtaking performances drive the story.
Coupled with the acting, the imagery in Beasts is nothing short of stunning. From grainy shots of nature to rusty boats, the images that continually grace the screen succeed in being both spectacular and honest to the bayou south. The imagery though, is not of a clean, pristine beauty, but rather a much more honest and vivid portrayal of reality. Zeitlin doesn't shy away from showing the grotesque. At several points in the film the audience is provided with images of animals whose guts have been torn out and a spider creeping upon a caterpillar to eat it. Hushpuppy states in so many words that it's staying and facing down the unpleasant things that make a person tough. It’s in this honesty that Zetlin reflects a more truthful story. Coupled with a riveting musical score, composed by Zeitlin and another member of Court 13, this film stays with you long after the lights of the cinema have turned back on.
Beasts is marvelous in part because of it’s showing of the beauty in the ordinary and imperfect, and how the ordinary and imperfect can be extraordinary. Benh Zeitlin and Court 13 put tremendous effort into making this film an authentic reflection of the bayou, and they succeed in part through their “grassroots” efforts, but also in part because of their strategic choice to use local actors. The story is enthralling not only because it reflects the emotions of perseverance, the relationship between a father and his child, and the threat of losing one’s culture, but also because of the genuine efforts of Zeitlin. The whole package is stunning and elevates the film to an entirely new level. Whimsical and beautiful through every moment, Beasts is deserving of some serious recognition come award season (not to mention its achievements at both Sundance and Cannes). But for now, it comes highly recommended as a perfect escape into an imaginative and emotional world. It won’t quite be like anything you’ve seen on a big screen before, and that’s precisely part of its charm.
*If you’re not in New York or Los Angeles, the film will be released in major cities intermittently throughout the month of July. In the meantime, you can check out Beasts predecessor Glory at Sea, also about the after math of a storm and a community in southern Louisiana.