by William Boden
Come fall in love with Hushpuppy. That’s the lead character’s name in Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature Beasts of the Southern Wild, a film that defies description but demands recommendation. Any attempt to pigeonhole Beasts falls flat, though a mythological, spiritual, storm-drenched, and magical depiction of a little girl’s experience as life changes through loss and expansion (not to mention the prehistoric aurochs) can only begin to describe what viewers see during this movie. And on the screen, in the theater, is the way to take in this film. “The Bathtub,” a fictional New Orleans floodplain, is where Hushpuppy, played by 6-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis in the break-out performance of the year, lives with her father Wink, and the scene-by-scene portrayal of a dying father doing all he can to assure his little girl can take care of herself once he is gone is spectacular, and will have you wishing the film was an hour longer. Every one of the year-end award presentations will undoubtedly have the film and the director, actress, actor, screenwriters, and cinematographer from Beasts on their nominations list. Though most films vying for those nominations are released as a herd near the end of each year (for the too-obvious sake of the voter’s memory), we have the privilege now, as the summer winds down, to see this 2012 masterpiece in theaters. It won the coveted Grand Jury prize at Sundance earlier this year, and that award foreshadows more to come.
Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar, a Floridian playwright and childhood friend of his, adapted her play Juicy and Delicious for this film as a metaphor for loss and why people stay in the path of the storm – here I go again, attempting to define what can only be experienced. A native New Yorker, Zeitlin and a SUV-load of other New Yorkers relocated to and subsequently fell in love with the city of New Orleans, and, with their new production company ‘Court 13’ (named after an abandoned squash court), have created a masterpiece with the promise of more to come.
Dwight Henry runs the New Orleans bakery ‘The Buttermilk Drop’ that the film crew went to every day before someone suggested Henry try out for the role of Wink, and Dwight went from feeding the crew donuts to feeding their cameras his fabulous role. Henry and Wallis were as far from professional actors as two leads could be, making Zeitlin’s skill as director obvious, and this production all the more of a wonder.
Glaciers calving, aurochs melting in polar ice caps, New Orleans-style parades, a storm on the scale of Hurricane Katrina, Hushpuppy’s voice-overs about the connectedness of the universe as well as her longing for the light that blinks repeatedly across the water (not unlike Jay Gatsby yearning for the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock), her discovery when she does go to the light, and aurochs coming from (perhaps?) the world of Hushpuppy’s unconscious right into the story – all these unlikely elements sew together in a film beautifully different in form and content from any I have ever seen.
Wink’s paternal love is as tender as it is wild, as feral and dependable as the tight-knit community surrounding father and daughter. Benh Zeitlin is 29, and we are fortunate he found his calling this early in life. In theaters now is his first work of art, truly 2012’s best, the indie film Beasts of the Southern Wild. Enjoy.