Winner of prizes including this year’s Caméra d’Or, Beasts of the Southern Wild takes us deep into the Bathtub, a community of rough-and-ready drinkers and talkers at the end of the road in Louisiana’s southern bayou wilds.
Six-year-old Hushpuppy (a gutsy Quvenzhané Wallis) is learning survival skills from her sickening father Wink (Dwight Henry). His insistence on self-sufficiency is reiterated by her teacher, Miss Bathsheba (Gina Montana), in whose ramshackle school pictures of polar caps are used as teaching aids on radical climate change linked to the possible re-emergence of primeval beasts (aurochs).
Presaging (or possibly postdating) these developments, a hurricane leads to widespread Katrina-esque flooding and destruction. Hushpuppy and some fellow survivors restore the Bathtub to its former state by blasting a levee and realigning water levels. Seismic alterations of the material world are concomitant, in Hushpuppy’s world, with a child’s roller-coaster emotionality: her need to break down the barrier of a father’s tough love and look for her mother.
Environments, be they emotional, social or ecological, are paramount. To render the immediacy of these interdependent systems, director Zeitlin and crew filmed entirely on 16mm film, using handcrafted sets and existing locations. Adapting a play by Zeitlin’s friend, playwright Lucy Allibar, they changed Hushpuppy’s gender and age but kept the raw confrontation with real and imagined adversaries that shape her existence.
Seen through her eyes, using her modes of accessing experience, the film functions as a life-stream rendition of childish perception in a seamless view that’s both self-contained and yet filled with textual allusions to mythical tropes (flooding and cleansing) or cultural signifiers (the cave drawings at Lascaux). Even if the adult imagination must stretch to accommodate Hushpuppy’s vision – and that of her creators – the rewards are truly mesmerising.
Beasts of the Southern Wild | Directed by Benh Zeitlin (USA 2012) with Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry. Starts December 20