By Joan Ellis
Beasts of the Southern Wild may well be the most rewarding movie you see this year. The man responsible is 27-year-old Wesleyan graduate Benh Zeitlin who managed to cast and direct a story by Lucy Alibar with enormous imagination and tenderness.
We are dropped immediately into the forgotten world of the Bathtub, an island south of New Orleans on the wrong side of the protective levee. (“They built the wall that cuts us off.”) Here is Hushpuppy (5-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis), whose wanderings give us a fast course in the squalid conditions that support a subsistence living level for a ragged population that depends largely on chickens plucked from the yard, tossed on a fire and washed down with various forms of alcohol. No one is able or willing to make any kind of order of this physical and emotional chaos; order isn’t a value in their culture. Staying alive is enough of a challenge.
Hushpuppy lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry) who is preparing her – with a harsh mix of cruelty and necessary toughness – to survive in this world after he dies, and that, he knows, will be soon. Hushpuppy‘s mother “swam away one day,” and her little girl cries out for her when life overwhelms her ability to handle it. This is a child who looks around for strength, finds nothing, and literally demands it of herself.
While there are peripheral characters who fit well in the grim scene, director Zeitlin funnels his story to us entirely through Wink and Hushpuppy. This young girl builds an extraordinary character who rises to all challenges with other worldly grace and presence. So amazing is her performance, so authentic the island life, that you may well wonder where you are: Is this a documentary? No, this is a movie. But it can’t be; but it is.
The beasts of the title are the metaphorical doom Wink has predicted: “When the beasts get hungry, they will come.”
Hushpuppy develops a philosophy: “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right.” Whenever anything is wrong in her world, she will fix it. There is no one else who can. Her father tells her, “When you’re small, you gotta fix what you can.” That edict translates into strength and wisdom. In a lovely moment, Wink asks, “If you caused the end of the world, what would you do?” His daughter replies, “I would try to fix it, and I would go to bed on time and brush my teeth.”
How did Benh Zeitlin, in Hushpuppy’s words, mange to “fit everything together just right?” The odds against finding Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry as his leads were astronomical. Once onboard, how to create the world of the Bathtub? Somehow, in a world of illusion, director Zeitlin and an entire cast – who had never acted before – were able to do it. The magic of it is that we can’t imagine how.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.