05 July 2012

Zeitlin’s ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’

“The Bathtub has more holidays than the whole rest of the world.”

I’m reluctant to say too much about Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, beyond urging you to see it at your first opportunity. Its charms are powerful, and yet you sense that the spell will break if it’s treated roughly. You don’t want to go into the theater knowing what to expect, ready to recite the script, prepared for every trick up the magician’s sleeves. And, too, there is so much that is mystical here: I don’t understand it all myself, though I see clearly that to try to process these things rationally is the surest way to ruin them.

Beasts of the Southern Wild shows us the ramshackle, precarious world of the Bathtub, a marshy stretch of the Louisiana delta that, in bad weather, makes New Orleans’ Ninth Ward look like a diamond-studded fortress. The half-mad, half-drunken, entirely brave and entirely foolish people there live by their ingenuity, catching fish with their hands and building whatever they need with whatever flotsam they find. Nobody has a job, and there’s no school to speak of, yet nobody dreams of leaving. In their midst we see Hushpuppy, a six-year-old girl, who is at once wholly original and a true descendant of that other child of the Mississippi, Huckleberry Finn.

Crabs and guns in the Bathtub: Hushpuppy affirms her prowess.

Hushpuppy’s father, Wink (Dwight Henry, at right in the picture above), rears her with a tough love that borders at times on cruelty, and yet his purpose is clear almost from the start: she needs to grow strong not only to survive in the Bathtub but also to survive without him. He’s dying of a blood disorder. But his is the addled optimism of a man who refuses to evacuate the flood plain when a hurricane is coming, and his likeminded neighbors are, each in his own way, helping father and daughter get by.

Zeitlin moved to New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina, and his feel for the beauty of the delta is keen. Taken piece by piece, the scraps of the Bathtub are ugly trash, and yet taken together, they build a magic kingdom. His actors are likewise scruffy and un-actorish. Hollywood, if it had deigned to touch a story like this, would have hired professional movie stars, but Zeitlin casts professional human beings.

He elicits fine performances from them all, and at center-screen, a staggering one from his Hushpuppy, young Qu’venzhané Wallis, thoroughly natural and unaffected. She commands both the Bathtub and the screen with fierce gravity and wry wit; even when she starts a fire, she makes it seem like the right thing to do in the circumstances. Watching her, you feel much as you might have felt had you heard the schoolgirl Leontyne Price singing in the church choir. Wallis may nor may not grow up to be an actress, but whatever she does, I think, will be worth heeding.

With her wise, poetical, and often very funny narration, Hushpuppy reminds me a great deal of Linda, the narrator of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, not least because the girls, like their directors, share a passionate interest in the natural environment. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hushpuppy, like Linda, harbored a desire to become “a dirt doctor.” On the soundtrack, Zeitlin’s musical score — which he co-wrote — is Days of Heaven-worthy, too, majestic yet lively, like something from a Cajun Ennio Morricone.

That basketball jersey is almost all Hushpuppy has from her mother.

Debutant director though he is, Zeitlin has in many ways moved beyond the master already. Even when he’s showing us a sterile refugee camp, a complete contrast to the Bathtub, Zeitlin doesn’t seem interested in Malick’s recent, obsessive dichotomies between human violence and nature’s grace. And while there are echoes here and there of Malick’s most recent film, The Tree of Life (which Zeitlin couldn’t have seen when he made his picture), Zeitlin succeeds better by applying his prehistoric grandiosity on a much smaller and more plausible scale (I won’t give it away), while presenting the personal drama on a larger one than that of Malick’s story. (Which, much though I admired it, boiled down to “Dad has mood swings.”)

I’m still absorbing images, rehearing Hushpuppy’s poetry, sorting out the truths of Beasts of the Southern Wild. It’s one of the finest, most completely realized American films I’ve seen in years, and I expect I’ll be living with it tucked in a pocket of my consciousness for a long time to come.

“In a million years, when kids go to school, they’re gonna know:
Once there was a Hushpuppy.”

1 comment:

Mikebench said...

I couldn't agree more with your assessment, Bill! Such beauty, such poetry in so much squallor... Who knew that an American movie could show that? And the beauty of the human experience that the movie depicts left me totally spent - emotionally - by the end...