Movies: "Beasts of the Southern Wild" | Arts & Culture
Here’s an independent movie that takes you into a world as alien as the one James Cameron spent millions creating in “Avatar” -- only this one is in the Louisiana delta.
This world is known as “The Bathtub,” a waterside collection of shacks populated by an assortment of poor white and black people who seem to spend their days fishing and their nights drinking. It’s where we meet six-year old Hushpuppy, played by a remarkable little girl named Quvenzhane Wallis, and her hard-drinking, volatile father, Wink, played by Dwight Henry, in real life a New Orleans baker.
The moment we first lay eyes on Hushpuppy, we hear the rumble of thunder, and quickly realize that it won’t be long before Hurricane Katrina comes to The Bathtub. But she faces another danger as well: her father is ailing, and his illness causes him to lash out at her. Retreating from this world, Hushpuppy tries to communicate with her missing mother and spends her time drawing the equivalent of cave paintings, so that “one million years from now, scientists will know there was a girl named Hushpuppy who lived with her daddy in The Bathtub.”
Schooled by the hamlet’s healer and wise woman (Gina Montana), Hushpuppy imagines the collapse of the polar ice caps that will someday inundate her bayou, and the rise of fearsome prehistoric beasts called aurochs, which look like giant boars with killer tusks. The movie’s unusual mix of naturalism and mythology places it in a category all its own and defies the usual humid portrayals of Louisiana livin’.
This was director Benh Zeitlin’s first feature film, which he co-wrote with childhood friend Luci Alibar, based on her play “Juicy and Delicious.” (Zeitlin also composed much of the movie’s music.) He was working with first-time actors and a shoestring budget, and the results are stunning. Not surprisingly, the movie won awards at Sundance and Cannes.
One powerful example of Zeitlin’s spare style: when Katrina hits The Bathtub, we experience its fury entirely from inside Hushpuppy’s home, and the effect is claustrophobic and very scary.
I cannot overstate the natural performances of this movie’s two leading players. Quvenzhane Wallis, whose first name means “fairy” in Swahili, may have been only six when she made this film, but she is riveting throughout, whether exulting on July 4th with a sparkler in each hand, weeping over her father’s illness or facing down the monsters her imagination has given life to. Similarly, Dwight Henry gives real life to the complex character of Wink, determined to save his daughter and his home, no matter what.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is rated PG-13 for its adult situations. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before, and I give it an A.