After one of the standout debuts of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, writer/director/composer Benh Zeitlin’s ”Beasts of the Southern Wild” will draw a more circumspect and certainly more divided reaction from cinemagoers. It has the esoteric, ambiguous and undisciplined narrative that’s always a harder sell in multiplexes, but it already has a strong indie film pedigree and Zeitlin’s destined for bigger things.
It doesn’t occur to you until afterward that ”Beasts of the Southern Wild” might have been intended as a fairy tale, albeit set in the real world. Many of the motifs (animals from another epoch, the community at the edge of the world) are strongly present despite their dreamlike aspect and you’re left wondering if they haven’t been dream sequences or the fancies of a young mind at all, but have really happened.
Instead of castles and princess it’s set in what appears to be the extreme coastal south of the US somewhere. You’ll read here and there that it’s Louisiana, but it’s never articulated in the film. Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is a precocious, curious little African American girl who lives with her drunkard, volatile father in a local community built of ramshackle detritus. But although it depicts the kind of poverty you can’t believe exists on the same continent as Beverly Hills or New York’s Fifth Ave, Hushpuppy and her people are essentially happy.
With their raucous, celebratory culture of drinking and nights filled with fireworks and happy shouting, they live more like Kalahari bushmen, self-sufficient and outside the confines of official society. In fact at one point Hushpuppy’s father talks about how they have to stay hidden from the city dwellers on the other side of a huge weir, and you understand it’s because social services and cops will come and take them all away if anybody knew about them.
But every tropical storm puts the township (called The Bathtub) one step closer to destruction, and when the waters rise higher than ever late one night, Hushpuppy and her erstwhile tribe find their time running out as their land and animals start to die.
At first it seems the repeated subplot of the aurochs thawing from frozen wastes and walking the earth is a parable for Hushpuppy’s fascination with creature’s hearts, a symbol that a huge, powerful being lives in this little girl’s body. But when they follow her and friends home one day and only Hushpuppy herself can placate the hungry beasts, you realise the film’s air of magic may have been literal all along.
It makes for an original if at-times confusing story, but it does a beautiful job capturing the sensory experience of the location, and the performances – many of them by non-actors – are a breath of fresh air.