Having spent the majority of 2012 hovering up accolades at numerous worldwide festivals, Beasts of the Southern Wild arrives in blighty to compete for yet another award at the London Film Festival (the Sutherland award for first feature) before its general release on Friday. Seen as one of the trending ‘green issue’ films when it premiered at Sundance in January, Benh Zeitlin’s is a startlingly assured debut and one that will mark him out for bigger projects and budgets.
His take on the environmental issue is not littered with numbers or facts choosing instead to go for the emotional jugular, hitting his mark with a near folkloric tale of 6 year-old Hushpuppy and her sick yet strong father Wink…yes the names are a bit much. The two live in ‘the bathtub’; a flood risk plain of the southern delta of America and home to a drinking rabble of idealists, drop-outs and elderly couples all instilled with a joire de vive that allows them to celebrate rather than fear their unusual homeland.
Zeitlin plunges us into the mud, dirt and maggots of the bathtub and all its creatures – human, farmyard and sea, unafraid of getting our fingers dirty. This living, breathing squalor lies alone, cut off from the mainland by a great barrier allowing Zeitlin to create an almost mythical community detached from the worries of ours and fill it instead with a world of magical realism and no little style.
Hushpuppy’s near Buddhist take on the Universe being a finely balanced place dependent on ‘everything fitting together jus right’ creates a heartbeat for the film – one made overt with the throbbing pulses of the many creatures held to Hushpuppy’s ear. It’s when a storm threatens to ruin her homeland for good that the earths impact starts to turn her zen like view into a tale of survival. The weather turns, water rises and Hushpuppy is quickly forced to make the most of the skills her ailing father has taught her. Brought with it are the beasts of the title; pre-historic giant boars set free from their ice-capped tombs and free to plunder all before them.
The inevitable backlash may already be underway – the vague, poetic one-line musing narration, elements of poverty porn and the music video qualities of the pre-credit sequence all feeling the ire of some but there is far too much wonder in the whole to focus on the minute. The sense of community in the bathtub may not ring particularly true but it’s one conjured up with real affection. Beautifully lit and photographed, this rough and ready backdrop becomes a character of its own as, aided by his own score, Zeitlin successfully creates a tone unseen in American cinema away from a Terrence Malick film.
Much of the plaudits are coming the way of 8 year old star Quavenzhane Wallis, with talk already turning to a possible Oscar nod – an understandable if slightly knee-jerk reaction to the capabilities of a minor holding her own in such an inventive film. Surely, however, much of the praise must be attributed to Zeitlin himself. He has crafted a visionary, rich and warm feature that belies his relative novice and, in the shadow of Katrina’s clouds, forced an issue as important as environmental concerns almost subliminally into screens around the globe.