Starring Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry. Rated PG. Opens Friday, July 13, at the Fifth Avenue Cinemas
It’s not often that we bump into genuinely independent cinema, and Beasts of the Southern Wild fits that description. An incantatory, occasionally bewildering experience, Beasts of the Southern Wild manages to both challenge and satisfy, on multiple levels.
The “wild” here is a tiny island off the coast of Louisiana called the Bathtub by its almost feral inhabitants, who view mainlanders with trepidation. Events centre on a bushy-haired, six-year-old girl called Hushpuppy (remarkable newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis) who has her own ramshackle trailer. According to Wink (Dwight Henry), her frequently absent and often angry father, Hushpuppy’s mom “swam away” years earlier, leaving them to fend for themselves among the animals they tend and amidst the constant threat of storms and interference from “dry-siders”.
The Bathtub’s other denizens are a ragtag band of alcohol-fuelled Cajuns, colourblind old-timers, and odd visionaries, including an ad hoc teacher (Pamela Harper) who fills the children’s heads—and ours, through some startlingly original imagery—with visions of huge, prehistoric creatures unlocked from frozen icecaps thanks to our abuse of the environment.
On the mythic-symbolic plane, the movie calls upon our knowledge of Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil disaster, and slavery days to provide context. But first-time director Benh Zeitlin, drawing on a play by cowriter Lucy Alibar, never loses intimacy with its enigmatic main players. And Southern Wild is as invested in its physical realities, and surrealities, as anything by Terrence Malick (or Wes Anderson, for that matter).
Particularly impressive is Zeitlin’s breathtaking control of mood and tone. The little girl’s wonder-filled narration and the director’s own dreamy musical score lend a fablelike enchantment to the proceedings, which introduce new locales and characters whenever tedium threatens to set in. “The entire universe depends on everything fitting together just right,” Hushpuppy insists more than once. And we feel strange for understanding less than she does.
Watch the trailer for Beasts of the Southern Wild.