It’s appropriate that the greatest feat Benh Zeitlin achieves in his first directorial effort, the deservedly lauded Beasts of the Southern Wild, is balance. Chief among the film’s many thematic thrusts is that of its lead’s internal musings on the interconnected nature of the universe; as seen through the eyes of the precocious Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis in a debut as astonishingly good as Zeitlin’s), Beast‘s cinematic world is a construct of millions of essential collaborations, a fragile but harmonious system within which unfolds a story of survival, family, childhood’s end, and societal division. It’s nothing short of incredible that none of this ever feels like too much, and that all of it reads as necessary to the film’s vitality.
Of course, that’s almost certainly part of Zeitlin’s point. Each element intertwines with the others in organic, tangible ways; the end result is a film whose every detail meshes together and yields a powerful, magical whole. And frankly, “magic” may be the word that best describes the experience of watching Beasts of the Southern Wild, even though the film– based on a one-act play by Zeitlin’s collaborator Lucy Alibar– anchors itself in reality. Or, at the very least, an echo of reality, a mirror-world suffering from its own Katrina crisis. Whether the great storm that influences the film’s events is the very same that shook the Gulf coast seven years ago or just its distant cousin is unclear, but it’s ultimately irrelevant. This isn’t a Katrina tale.
Instead, it’s a story about a young girl growing up and learning to live in a world that’s defined by contradicting features. Life in the Bathtub, at first blush, is unyielding and hard; our first glimpse of this world reveals a shanty community divorced from the mainland as well as the greater bulk of what we call civilization. By many standards, the Bathtub’s inhabitants have little to their names, but Beasts pierces that myopic view and flips perception one hundred and eighty degrees: if you ask any Bathtubber, it’s the mainland folk who have it all wrong. Bonds of community keep the Bathtub residents strong, and an allegedly inexhaustible supply of holidays mean they have more fun than the rest of the world.
Stuck right in the middle of this whimsical, grimy, grounded utopia is Hushpuppy. If the Bathtub is itself isolated from the coast, Hushpuppy’s home is even more so, a dingy cabin populated by a menagerie of farm animals. In the strictest sense, she lives alone; her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), lives in his own place on the same land as his daughter. “Why” becomes clear as we get to know them and grow more familiar with their dynamic. A life lived in the Bathtub is still a hard life, after all, and Wink– a man whose intentions are good though his methods are often harsh– wants his child to grow up strong and learn how to survive on her own.
Because survive she must. Apart from the imminent arrival of the aforementioned hurricane, Hushpuppy contends with her father’s failing health and the release of the legendary Aurochs, a race of predatory prehistoric behemoths, from their ancient glacial prisons– two events she suspects are related. The woolly Aurochs (they seem to be a gargantuan cross between a steer and a wild boar) are brought to monstrous life with truly impressive puppetry, background players representing a looming and ambiguous quantity to the film’s much more visceral and palatable dangers. And through it all Hushpuppy maintains her own kind of stoicism, remaining bravely ingenuous in the face of every obstacle and threat the world throws at her, Wink, and their neighbors.
Wallis, as Hushpuppy, is nothing short of 2012′s greatest acting revelation. (For posterity: she won the audition for the role at five; production began after she turned six.) Immediately, Wallis shows Hushpuppy to be as much a force of nature here as any of the true natural elements she confronts, imbuing her with the brazen, fearless indomitable verve of an older, world-weary soul. Hushpuppy is nearly every bit as tough as Wink wishes for her to be, and there’s not much question as to whether she can survive once he’s gone. But even a child so tough as she is still a child, and Wallis deftly weaves cracks and fractures into the frame of Hushpuppy’s outer armor. It’s a performance beyond the young actress’ age and one of the best the year has to offer.
If Wallis provides Beasts with its heart and soul, Henry gives it the irreplaceable impact of genuine experience. Like Wallis, Henry isn’t a professional actor; his “in” on the production was his bakery, which stood across the street from Court 13′s studio. But Henry is a bona fide survivor; he made it through Katrina, and if Beasts isn’t meant to portray the truth of that disaster, it certainly acts as a Katrina allegory. Henry brings urgency to his role, the frantic determination of someone who has dealt with the trials of the world and wishes to impart the secrets of his endurance with his only child. Together, he and Wallis give Beasts a boisterous, sober, unshakeable, backbone through which the film’s innumerable themes and ideas resonate.
Like his two leads, Zeitlin is operating on the level of a far more veteran talent. Beasts of the Southern Wild would be a strong feature from any number of more established directors; that it’s the only director’s credit he has to his name speaks well to Zeitlin’s future and the depth of his passion. In every gorgeous, breathtaking detail dwells a deep-set love for the material and for the setting, from stampedes of majestic yet ferocious Aurochs to dazzling fireworks celebrations during one of the Bathtub’s holidays. It’s in those characteristics that Beasts of the Southern Wild finds its strength and meaning: it is a film that should be experienced and felt rather than dissected with dour, straight-laced criticism, a story that finds celebration and joy in the face of tragedy and skepticism.