The damndest thing you’ll see this summer, first-time director Benh Zeitlin’s Sundance sensation Beasts of the Southern Wild is a junkyard rhapsody that seems to be inventing its own cinematic language as it goes along. Deliberately abstracted with a fractured syntax, this folk tale about a young girl’s coming-of-age plays like Days Of Heaven by way of The Road Warrior.
Our heroine, 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), lives with her rough but well-meaning drunkard father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in a ramshackle dirt-poor New Orleans outskirt called the Bathtub. Cut off from the rest of the city by a massive levee, it’s a self-sustaining fishing and farming community of dirty undershirts and crawdads, where everybody seems to be hammered most of the time and in desperate need of a shower. There’s a big storm brewing on the horizon, but the movie doesn’t dare call it Katrina.
Zeitlin isn’t particularly interested in making a socio-political time capsule about poverty. He instead pushes the movie into a heightened realm of mythic grandeur. The camera shares Hushpuppy’s POV, staying low to the ground and gazing upward in gloriously grainy shallow-focus 16mm. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a marvel of oddball sights, purple narration and blaring Zydeco music that surfs waves of almost primal emotion. Daddy’s dying of a heart condition, and Hushpuppy is soon going to have to face this world she can barely understand all on her own.
There’s a rugged, survivalist joy to the proceedings that works rather incongruously against the constant squalor. Meticulously designed so that almost every shot is as cluttered as humanly possible, the Bathtub is a remarkable feat of production design, and the movie has a strange affection for these outsiders who are stubborn enough to stay put and drink their way through a disaster. Evacuation is for sissies, I guess? Their romanticized bravado slightly skirts the real question as to where these people could even go if they wanted to leave?
A lot of ink has been spilled by detractors questioning Zeitlin’s right to make this picture in the first place. Along again comes the tired argument that some well-off white dude from Wesleyan shouldn’t be directing movies about poor people. This kind of class-warrior criticism, usually fired at female directors like Lena Dunham and Sofia Coppola, strikes me as spectacularly inane. Filmmaking is the most ridiculously expensive of all the arts, and thus almost exclusively the provenance of so-called “rich kids.” To deny an artist the opportunity to explore cultures other than his or her own over questions of “authenticity” would leave us with nothing but mumblecore movies and Duplass Brothers doodles.
Such arguments are also a denial of empathy, something with which Beasts of the Southern Wild overflows. Wink is, for all intents and purposes, a terrible father. Brusque, borderline abusive and rarely sober, he’s still doing his best to prepare Hushpuppy for a life that’s hardscrabble even during the happiest of times. Henry is a nonactor, by the way, who runs a bakery in New Orleans. He shouts most of his lines, but the vaguely flummoxed quality of his performance conveys the desperation of a parent who knows he’s in over his head.
Hushpuppy is indeed a handful. Wallis was only 6 years old during filming, and she brings an indomitable spirit to the pint-sized survivor. We spend most of the movie trying to process the world through Hushpuppy’s eyes, with her grandiose, often confounding narration as the only foothold in a sea of clattering, foreign images. (My favorite is her observation, upon visiting a hospital and eyeing life-support machines, that these city people plug their sick animals into the wall.)
The visual wonders on display here include prehistoric aurochs—Maurice Sendak-inspired warthogs thawed out from the melting polar ice caps and stampeding into Hushpuppy’s subconscious. There’s also a boat made out of a pickup-truck bed, a dead crocodile stuffed with dynamite and a floating dancehall in the middle of the gulf that seems to have arrived from somewhere beyond the Thunderdome.
Beasts of the Southern Wild casts a spell that defies any easy explanation. I’ve seen the picture twice now and still have a hard time telling anybody what it’s about. The harshness of the environment is conveyed with a child’s wonderment and fear, while emotions run raw and overwhelming. Yet somehow, the triumphant final shot sends you soaring out of the theater.