Lavished with praise since it’s Camera d’Or win at Cannes, this debut feature from Benh Zeitlin has got everyone debating whether its a masterpiece or a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is the tale of a plucky young six year-old (Quvenzhané Wallis) known affectionally as Hushpuppy, fighting to save her home in a Deep South bayou region called the Bathtub, scrapping through life without her mother, guided only by her alcoholic father Wink (Dwight Henry).
Told mostly through narration rather than on-screen dialogue – one assumes partly due to Wallis’ age – it details Hushpuppy’s journey from happy child to necessitated homemaker and carer, amongst the constant battle of extreme poverty and threat of rising flood waters in the region.
One thing can be sure, this is definitely a film of firsts. Not least for the director and two newcomer lead actors – both plucked from obscurity (Henry being a baker from New Orleans and Wallis a complete unknown from Louisiana) – and while it’s not the first feature born in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, it’s certainly the first of its kind.
Indeed, you can’t even begin to pin Beasts of The Southern Wild down to a genre. With a narrative that wafts along dreamily, the film is often more concerned with ideology than cinematic experience. It’s not necessarily a bad thing but it won’t be to everyone’s taste.
The bayou is portrayed as a very simple but spiritual place, worth protecting at all costs. As Wink’s health gradually deteriorates, knowing his days are numbered, he becomes desperate to pass on his survival instincts to Hushpuppy. Wallis’ performance is one of a tiny child metamorphosing into a strong, powerful girl, ready to take on the world.
Sequences of Southern struggle against the Westernised corporate authorities serve to evoke the huge gulf between America’s rich masses and the bitterly poor. Mostly they work, but sometimes the vibrant cinematic backdrop and cajun soundtrack clash with the vision of abject poverty that is meant to be depicted.
With such a loose narrative structure the film often veers into darker territories, with some of its mythology and symbolism a little misplaced. As Hushpuppy harnesses the legacy of her mother and willpower of her father to battle as the flooding waters, ancient creatures (the Aurochs) start emerging from melting ice caps. While the comparison is reasonable, later sequences with the the beasts literally confronting the girl serve to confuse more than reward the viewer.
In truth it’s the performances that carry the film, turning what could easily be a collection of half-baked ideas into a truly memorable piece of cinema. Wallis and Henry are both undeniably believable as their highly emotive characters and their on-screen relationship absolutely key to the film’s success.
The beauty of Beasts of The Southern Wild lies in its unequivocal decision to tell a straight down the line, hard-hitting story in the most unconventional of ways. It is no ordinary film: part fantasy, part documentary, part poem; always deliberately twisting and ambiguous.
That said, it isn’t a masterpiece. Those who insist it are wrong. But it is a highly crafted, visionary piece of cinema with its heart in the right place, and that should be widely applauded.