Beasts of the Southern Wild feels like fightin’ words to the modern motion picture industry, a line in the sand with aesthetic-less lo-fi indies and sanded-off, corporate Oscarbait on one side, and Beasts carnivorously lurking on the other. It is above all a very instinctive motion picture, primordial and sensuous and rebellious in a way that eschews the intellectual, the analytic, and the rational for a burst of bedlam and commotion that feels, if not entirely structurally sound, all the more emotionally true for how close it comes to bursting. It’s cinematic rock ‘n’ roll.
Writer-director Benh Zeitlin lowers himself into the upheaval of the Bathtub, a twilight zone brew of anarcho-syndicalist pandemonium and out-of-the-way collectivity. Deep in the heart of Southern Louisiana, where the wilds of the flood plain meet the wilds of so-called “civilized” society, the Bathtub is an assembly of ramshackle houses hewn and barely composed from earth and metal. Houses reside just slightly above the water level, with the community members traversing by boat over the swampy water that hides their own collective secret existence from the masses (a levee cuts the Bathtub off from the rest of society). The Bathtub feels like a mythic place of Southern imagination, the sort of anti-society outsider conglomerate a Southern child might dream up in the thick backwoods of the Deep South, and their parents might whisper about or laugh away. But Zeitlin treats it with gravity and solemnity, maneuvering away from miserabilism or poverty-porn and toward something more bracing and disquieting in its innocence.
In the bayou Bathtub resides Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her daddy Wink, played by Dwight Henry, neither of whom were actors at the time but who both give disarming performances free of showmanship or grandstanding. Hushpuppy, at the tender age of six, does not know her mother, and much of the film (almost all of it) is a slice-of-life exploration of the Bathtub and how it is lived in: day-to-day, in fits and spurts, with melancholia smoothed over but not eliminated by fitful life, with emptiness and presence intertwined into one. The people, Hushpuppy primarily, live on the edge of their seat, and her daddy is forever aware that she will one day lose the magical veracity with which she views her home. It will become, essentially, a real place to her, and he is doing everything he can – sometimes with no room for error or back talk on Hushpuppy’s behalf – to prepare her for an adult life in the Bathtub, for their way of life, even if it means not showing her the love she may need.
Benh Zeitlin’s script risks, numerous times, something drippier and more melodramatic than the material requires, but Zeitlin the director knows how to keep Zeitlin the writer on his best behavior. Behind the camera, Zietlin tackles the cinéma vérité 16 mm film grain used in the past decade by Darren Aronofsky for multiple films. Not only that, but Zeitlin manages, even better than Aronofsky, to transform the 16 mm film strip into a legitimate aesthetic. The self-conscious graininess allows for both a greater submersion into gritty realism (a sense, essentially, that we are watching what amounts to a docudrama about an unknown culture) and a fable-like alienation to the piece (the sense that we are looking at an unknown culture, and thus can not fully explore it in the fashion of a documentary). The film becomes intimately observed and even naturalistic without ever giving in to the weaknesses and laziness of ascetic realism. Something about the molasses-thick texture of the film also steers clear of the mildewy magical realism so cloying in many films about the American South; the film recalls the greater spirit of haunted mystique seen in the likes of Charles Laughton’s seminal The Night of the Hunter.
More percussive connections include the American New Wave, comparisons which slither even further into the heart of the narrative by means of this style; the grimy but not needlessly grotesque technique affords Beasts the, well, beastly quality of so many classic New Hollywood works by the likes of Cassavetes or the communal pieces of Robert Altman. Zeitlin even gets credit for exploring other nooks and crannies of film history; the location-heavy production recalls the “voodoo of location” sensibilities of so many New German Cinema and Australian New Wave productions from the heyday of the early ’70s. It’s like Terrence Malick torn apart in the meat grinder of Southern living.
Zeitlin doesn’t direct down to the inhabitants of the Bathtub; he shows empathy for them, but he doesn’t give in to coating their livelihoods in candy or awe-struck otherwordliness; these are not magical “others”, and Wink is not a magical negro of the Morgan Freeman variety. Zeitlin feeds them grit and dirt and evokes the workaday harshness of the Bathtub as well as the genuine communal zest, not so much honoring the location as respecting it. There is undoubtedly a magic to Beasts (giant CG boars rush toward Hushpuppy throughout the film as markers of her oncoming early adulthood, a trenchant reminder of the gravity of a life that turns children into adults well before it happens in normative society). But the magic always exists in counterpoint, and in harmony with, trauma, and if Zeitlin’s film is a breath of fresh air into the cinematic landscape of the 2010s, it is aware of the sacrifices his magic is built on.
Beasts is as moving and radical a filmic language for dissecting and evoking the trauma and resilience of New Orleans after Hurrican Katrina as the cinema has yet produced, but it is much more. It is a study in how cinema can vitalize humanity with eye-level immediacy, and an ode to the power of filmmaking to explore community, youth, and age with the appropriate mixture of collective improvisation, youthful spark, and world-weary awareness required of the subject. It is as lively as anything the decade in cinema so far has yet produced, as lovely and warm and human and sincere as anything we’ve seen in the past few years, but it is always aware that its love must be as tough as leather.