CANNES – Fiercely original, richly imagined, and blessed with one of the great child performances, “Beasts Of The Southern Wild” may have made its premiere at Sundance this year, but it was embraced wholeheartedly by crowds at Friday’s Cannes Film Festival, and for good reason. Horribly beautiful and deeply felt, the film is a spectacular example of how much more important imagination is than budget, and it may be the first great new fairy tale on film since “City Of Lost Children.”
How do you even begin to capture something as delicate, ethereal, and feral as the performance of Quvenzhane Wallis, who stars as Hushpuppy, the film’s main character and narrator? It’s one thing to imagine a world of washed-out beauty like The Bathtub, but it’s quite another to make it such a tangible and well-realized place that it feels like you just stumbled across it and set up cameras there. Director Benh Zeitlin and his entire crew deserve accolades for finding a way to create such a carefully detailed world on what looks like a very tight budget, and for sticking to an ambition that feels totally uncompromised in execution. It would be impressive enough if it was just a case of great art design, but then to populate the world with this iconic, fascinating people struggling to survive in a world that wants them to disappear is nothing less than humbling to behold.
“Beasts Of The Southern Wild” is the tale of a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy who lives in a blasted-out waterlogged bayou community called The Bathtub, where the forgotten and the discarded live happily by their own rules. Her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), is basically a primal force of nature. Some days he’s there. Some days he’s not. He lives in one house, and Hushpuppy lives in her own, which she’s allowed to fill with whatever toys and playthings and animals she wants. It is a life of wild celebration, of emotional storms that roll in unexpectedly, and of unending freedom. It is the only life Hushpuppy has ever known. When I say that they have two houses, don’t get me wrong… these are not houses so much as cobbled-together shacks and rusted out trailers, built from rescued and recycled debris.
Even in a world that looks as squalid and unhinged as The Bathtub, there are familiar rhythms, though. Hushpuppy goes to a sort of school, learning hard truths from Miss Bathsheba (Gina Montana), who explains to the children that every animal on earth is made of meat, including them. “We are all part of the Grand Buffet of the Universe,” she warns them, and no sooner does Miss Bathsheba warn them of the way the Earth is changing than they are hit by a hundred-year storm that pushes The Bathtub underwater, poisoning everything, killing the animals they feed on, and leading the citizens of The Bathtub to worry that their way of life may be impossible moving forward.
There is a more civilized world out there somewhere, but they’ve turned their back on the people who live in The Bathtub, happy to forget about them until forced to remember they’re out there. Wink has a secret that he’s keeping from Hushpuppy, but it forces him to take desperate measure to try and make sure she’ll be okay if he has to disappear. He wants her to stay in The Bathtub, to be raised living this wild and free life, and while he is frequently angry, difficult to understand for this little girl who seems wide open to all the joys and sorrows and hurts of life, he also loves her dearly in the only way he can.
Some of the reviews out of Sundance evoked the name of Terence Malick, and I can see some of his approach in the film’s visual signature, but I think it is just one of many ingredients that Benh Zeitlin incorporated in his approach. The script, developed by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar from one of her plays, has its own special voice, informed by the cultural gumbo of New Orleans, and I think there’s real magic in the way things came together for them here. Both of their leads are non-actors, people with no professional experience, but when you look at them in their scenes together, they are simply, effortlessly, completely these characters. There’s no “acting” going on. It is a seamlessly created world, and Hushpuppy is such a commanding lead that it’s hard to believe this little girl is performing.
The film has real ambition in the way it etches the details of the larger world, and Ben Richardson’s cinematography is shimmering and lovely, even when pointed at the ugliest things. I do have one major complaint about the film, and it’s a complaint about a larger aesthetic choice these days that I’m just tired of in general. Please stop shaking your camera for no reason. Please. You’ve created this great world, you’ve cast these great actors, and yet there are times when you almost seem afraid to just lock the camera down and show me what’s happening. I hate shaky cam. I hate it more than anyone anywhere hates CGI. I hate that we’ve reached this point in film language where people seem to think it is a valid and logical choice to hand the camera to someone having a seizure because it’s “artistic.” It’s not. If you’re using it to communicate an emotional state or a particular mood, that’s one thing, but it is omnipresent in movies today, and this is a film that has such a great strong sense of itself that it doesn’t need this nervous tic, this dated affectation. It is the movie’s one true misstep, but it’s a big one.
Having said that, in all other ways, I am smitten. I love the score by Dan Romer and Zeitlin, I love the production design by Alex Digerlando, and I think the Aurochs, prehistoric monsters who we see emerge from the thawing polar icecaps, are gorgeously realized. In the end, this is a story of a child taking their first steps into a world where they are alone, without protection, and how hard it is as a parent to ever believe that we have prepped them enough. Hushpuppy loves her daddy, and her daddy loves Hushpuppy, and in a cold cruel world, maybe that’s enough to prepare her for whatever she will face. “Beasts Of The Southern Wild” believes that, and now that I’ve seen the film, I believe it, too.
“Beasts Of The Southern Wild” opens in limited release June 27, 2012 in the US.