Drifting in from various film festivals on smoke signals of lavish praise, the unique, fascinating and ultimately depressing film called Beasts of the Southern Wild— a low-budget independent film by Benh Zeitlin about survivors of apocalyptic Hurricane Katrina, shot in the back swamps of Terrebonne Parish, La., using local nonactors instead of Hollywood extras—is now ready to engage the movie-going public in the darkness of a dream. There is no guarantee that the movie-going public is ready. I don’t notice any critics offering to pick up its deficit tabs in case it floats away from good reviews. But get ready anyway. Brilliant, compelling and powerful, this offbeat look at a part of a world we live in but know nothing about is not going to disappear without at first making a noise.
In a desolate, burned-out butt end of nowhere (the shrimp-trawling, blackened catfish, Cajun part of Southeastern Louisiana), a little girl they call Hushpuppy is left alone for days and nights on end when her desperately ill father disappears, forcing her to invent her own survival techniques. The setting is the emotionally parched and geographically designed cartographer’s view of hell called The Bathtub—what’s left of an area of makeshift cardboard and toothpick shanties that Katrina devastated, scattering the region’s population to the wind like dandelion fuzz. It lies low between the Gulf and the Mississippi River—a man-made wall has gone up on the dry side of the levee to protect against annihilating floods. This is where nothing grows, catfish and crawdads from polluted
Fueled by homespun philosophy she learned in a one-room schoolhouse that has since washed away, 6-year-old Hushpuppy (played with raw, largely improvised energy by a world-weary child named Quvenzhané Wallis) provides childish narration (“The whole universe depends on everything fittin’ together just right.”) that carries the action between scenes of day-in and day-out living while Hushpuppy and her sick father do whatever they have to in order to avoid being rounded up and sent to a homeless shelter. Nothing fits in Hushpuppy’s dismal, deprived world of a jerry-built trailer safely lodged in a tree just high enough off the ground to keep the gators and cottonmouth
This is lacerating stuff, not remotely ready to be embraced by a wide audience beyond critics and hardcore movie buffs, but it has haunted me so profoundly that I want to see it again. Filmed with blood and sweat by Benh Zeitlin, and based on a play by his co-writer Lucy Alibar, Beasts of the Southern Wild combines undeniable elements of global warming, of Robert Flaherty’s poetic documentary The Louisiana Story and grass-roots heroism, while telling a harrowing coming-of-age story set in a forgotten time and place the world knows about only from newspapers. Poetry and history come together in a unique, two-fisted kidney punch that lands with the force of a magic wand.
Don’t miss this one. A brave and inspired antidote to time-wasting mainstream movies, it is unlike anything you’ve seen before or will likely ever see again. In short, it is unforgettable.
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
Running Time 91 minutes
Written by Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin
Directed by Benh Zeitlin
Starring Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry and Levy Easterly