Throughout the past two decades or so, every year, a film or two come out of Park City, Utah’s Sundance Film Festival, and become something of a cultural and critical darling. 2012 has proved itself to be no different. Be it the John Hawkes starring (The Surrogate, now known as The Sessions) or the film in question here, Benh Zeitlin’s debut film, Beasts Of The Southern Wild. Picked up by mid-major darling Fox Searchlight, Beasts has become one of the most polarizing, but ultimately talked about, films of the year, and most discussed American directorial debut in years. And thankfully, the film lives up to every bit of that hype, and then some.
A creation of Zeitlin and his filmmaking crew known as Court 13 (it’s even credited in the end credits as a ‘film by Court 13’), Beasts is co-written by he and playwright Lucy Alibar, whose play ‘Juicy and Delicious’ is the source from which this film is based. Hushpuppy, our lead character/oft-narrator is a young girl, six years in age, and currently lives with her papa Wink, in a portion of a southern Delta outside of New Orleans known as The Bathtub. When a storm comes their way, she and her father must prepare for the wicked things that are coming their way. Toss in some prehistoric beasts awakened by the melting of the polar ice caps, and you have the makings of a fantastical film that feels as much a fantasy film as it is a true bit of Southern Gothic coming-of-age filmmaking. Simply put, this is unlike anything you’ll see all year, and may be one of the most audacious directorial debuts we’ve see in ages.
Led by a cast of ‘non’-actors, the film stars youngster Quvenzhane Wallis, who is as much a tour-de-force as a performance that turn of phrase has ever been connected to. A tonally perfect performance, Wallis’ great attribute is her inherent ability to perfectly express the emotional chasm that a child is able to travel on the turn of a dime. From pure violence found in her anger (reminiscent of the opening sequence to the film’s closest kin, Spike Jonze’s adaptation of ‘Where The Wild Things Are’) to the strong sense of wonder and eternal hope that she and her character carry throughout the film, the emotional range is both strong, and full of such truth and depth. Dwight Henry plays Wink, her father, and while at moments the performance (and the screenplay itself) feels histrionic and shrill, the relationship between he and Hushpuppy feels true, and their love for one another always rings through perfectly.
That said, the film is truly the vision of its director, Zeitlin, and what a vision it is.
Shot entirely on 16mm, the film uses what has become known as a ‘documentary style,’ shaky cam sense of geography well, adding a sense of kinetic energy to a world already full of so much vigor and life. Occasionally taking away from what is truly one of the most aesthetically intriguing worlds crafted on-screen this year, Zeitlin’s camera acts as a second child almost, always on the run, always looking at the world with a sense of wonderment and intrigue. Featuring lush and hazy photography, Beasts is visually inspired, taking an almost punk-rock sense of creative freedom and tossing it inside of this uncompromising look at childhood innocence, anger and strength. A mixture of Terrence Malick experimentation (and voice over) and Maurice Sendak-style brood, Beasts tosses these two inherent influences into a blender and becomes a gothic fairy tale of a young girl standing up to the end of truly everything that her world has ever been. And what a stand she makes.
With awards from Sundance and even Cannes under its belt, Beasts Of The Southern Wild has become 2012’s early indie darling. While detractors have called the film pretentious, bombastic and even self-indulgent, the film is even more so rambunctious, audacious, and utterly breathtaking. A Sendakian look at childhood, Beasts is a breathtaking meditation on how the youngest of us are truly the strongest of us. No matter how big of a bite life may in fact take at or out of us, one must never submit. After all, as the film says, ‘everybody loses that thing that made them. The brave men stay and watch it happen.’