Pitched somewhere between a southern gothic, a fairly tale, and a hard luck life childhood, Beasts of the Southern Wild is an undeniably striking feature directorial debut from Benh Zeitlin. It’s a low budget, independent movie with the scope of an epic, nimbly weaving between acutely observed realism and wide-eyed child’s fantasy. Unfortunately, that combination of seemingly contradictory elements is both the film’s strength and shortcoming. This is one of those first films by an ambitious filmmaker attempting to do everything he’s ever dreamed of cramming into a movie at once. That leads to an impressive explosion of ideas that lends the film life and boundless energy, while also making it feel episodic, inconsistent, and somewhat half-baked. The moments that work are stunning enough to instantly establish Zeitlin as a young director loaded with potential, but that doesn’t negate the sense that perhaps he stretched his ambitious a little too far and can’t pull together all the strands as satisfyingly as the film demands.
One thing no one can take away from the filmmaker is the discovery of Quvenzhane Wallis as his lead. Five when he found her and seven when shooting was completed, the inexperienced youngster carries the movie on her back, effortlessly delivering a rounded, truthful performance. She stars as Hushpuppy, a young girl living in total desolation. She’s part of a small community never specifically identified in time and place, but it appears to be homeless societal outcasts living in shacks, boats, tree forts and shanty towns outside of New Orleans. Hushpuppy escapes her harsh existence by mingling fantasy with reality, convinced she can communicate with animals while living out a fairy tale of her own creation. Her life is far from a fantasy though, as a dependent of a broken unemployed father Wink (Dwight Henry, also an untrained unknown and also excellent) suffering from some sort of fatal illness.
Things really get rough when a flood hits and wipes out the wobbling makeshift homes that comprise their community. Hushpuppy and Wink end up in a floating boat house filled with similarly lost families only to be picked up by a authorities who through them into shelters far more cold and depressing than the transient existence. She eventually breaks out with other children hoping to find a new home, only to end up on a floating bordello equally inhospitable for a young, cute child. That the whole story comes from Hushpuppy’s perspective, films the film with exaggerated, aggrandizing images of her father and an apocalyptic vision of every storm and tragedy. All throughout, the girl also has visions of large beasts slowly catching up with her, expertly crafted by a VFX team. The stabs at magic realism are used beautifully by Zeitlin and his writing collaborator Lucy Alibar, feeling true to a child’s perspective rather than a quirky conceit laid on thick by attention-craving filmmakers.
What this slice of folklore is specifically supposed to mean is a worthy question left tantalizingly out of grasp. Is it all an “apply your own allegory” like a classic fairy tale? Did Zeitlin bury the clear meaning too deep beneath style and spectacle? Or is there nothing really there, just hints at artistic aspirations by budding filmmakers unsure of how to follow through on their heady n’ ballsy ideas? Personally, I’m not sure. I want to believe the first option, secretly fear the others, and think the truth probably lies somewhere in all three (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a first time filmmaker). The trailers and some reviews have linked the film to the poetic, enigmatic work of Terrence Malick (Tree of Life, Days of Heaven) and while there’s no way he wasn’t a major influence, I think a more appropriate comparison would be the Malick-like picture George Washington. Directed by David Gordon Green when he was an art filmmaker before making an unlikely transition into stoner comedies, George Washington is a similar presentation of southern gothic lost youth shot in an evocative, nostalgic style with hints of magic realism. It’s hard to figure out exactly what Green hoped to achieve, but that’s almost irrelevant. Films like George Washington or Beasts of the Southern Wild are more sensory experiences than works of concrete narrative or art cinema. Their joys are found in getting lost in the worlds the filmmakers created and sucking up the unique atmosphere. The how’s and why’s of that experience can be worked out by the viewer afterwards. All theories are equally right and wrong. Some viewers hate that type of movie and will hate this too. Deep into a director’s career, resting on this type of filmmaking can become frustrating and/or limiting, but early on is a perfectly good means of showing off talent and Zeitlin displays plenty throughout his wandering journey.