The Sundance Film Festival has given American culture noted gems such as Reservoir Dogs, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, and Little Miss Sunshine. But now, the Utah indie showcase has granted us perhaps its greatest gift in Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) and her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), live in The Bathtub, a small, lawless island beyond the levees of New Orleans. The residents of The Bathtub are joyful outcasts of society, living in squalor but finding joy in nature, drinking and dancing. When a sudden storm arrives, some Bathtub residents, including Hushpuppy and her father, choose to stay put. Coinciding with the storm's arrival is the reckoning of mythical creatures known as "aurochs," fierce bull-like beasts that have been released by the imbalance of nature and are now coming to eat Hushpuppy. With her town destroyed and her father falling ill, Hushpuppy must learn to live on her own and face the impending arrival of the "aurochs," all while the world falls apart around her.
Part Malick-esque meditation on man's relationship with nature, part magical folk tale and part coming of age story, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a true triumph in the fusion of striking realism and creativity. Director Behn Zeitlin (only 29 years old) miraculously succeeds in placing a traditional father-daughter tale in the backdrop of both a decaying ecosystem and a modern myth. What could have been a patronizing post-Hurricane Katrina lecture is instead a true work of art, narrowing in on a largely ignored subculture of America with both nuance and imagination. Zeitlin's choice to have Hushpuppy's existential narration play over gorgeous shots of nature could have been a pretentious disaster but manages to fit seamlessly because of the honesty of the filmmaking.
Eight-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis astonishes in the central performance as Hushpuppy, accomplishing more in a single look than most professional adult actors will probably achieve throughout their entire careers. Though we do not know how much Wallis could have accomplished without her director, excellent child performances are a rare breed and this one will not be forgotten come Oscar season. Meanwhile, Dwight Henry, in the sometimes despicable role of Wink, adds a wonderful authenticity that elevates a character that could have merely been a stereotype.
The score is both epic and haunting. Combining New Orleans jazz with the transcendent sounds of nature, Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin create a beautiful soundtrack with a memorable theme that speaks true to the tone of the film.
I was lucky enough to attend a screening with a surprise Q&A from Zeitlin, the true mastermind behind this extraordinary little film. Zeitlin shared his experience from spontaneously working on a short film in Louisiana that eventually became Beasts of the Southern Wild. The director selected Wallis over thousands of young girls, seeing something in the young actress that clearly stood apart from all the others. The filming of the movie coincided with the BP oil spill, leading to a tumultuous filming schedule and illuminating some of the environmental warnings that the film presents. Zeitlin's energy and passion for the project was evident, and a true testament that young filmmakers are finding new ways to be creative when telling stories.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is an Americana modern masterpiece, and one that should not be missed under any circumstances.