This month’s award for Best Live Action Film was not that difficult to decide, even though it was a superb month for cinema in general. Sally Potter’s powerful coming of age drama Ginger and Rosa really surprised me with how involved I got, and featured one of the year’s best performances in Elle Fanning‘s portrayal of Ginger. An equally surprising, equally good coming of age story was The Perks of Being A Wallflower which was one of the most angsty films of recent memory, but actually earned the more emotional moments with good performances. Ruby Sparks was a clever, poignant indie that marked Zoe Kazan out as a name to watch. Skyfall was simply the best Bond film there’s ever been (coming from a non-Bond fan). But there was only ever one film it could have been…
Beasts of the Southern Wild has been on cinephile radars ever since Sundance film festival, where director Benh Zeitlin and lead actress Quvenzhané Wallis picked up universal plaudits. Soon a trailer was online, the Cannes film festival awarded Zeitlin with the Golden Camera for best first time director, and London Film Festival welcomed the cast, crew and film to British shores. Expectation was suitably ramped up to near hysterical proportions. It arrived on a wave of hype with an undercurrent of early backlash of people saying it wasn’t that good. As it emerges in more and more cinemas, it’s getting easier for you to discover that it really is that good. It’s a fairy tale wrapped in a post-apocalyptic survival story with a 6 year old girl and her Dad trying to make sense of it all at the centre. It’s the most remarkable debut of recent years, told with the innocence of a first time film maker but with the skill of a seasoned pro.
Hushpuppy (Wallis) lives in The Bathtub, a town named for the fact that it is below the levees of New Orleans, and so will be the first to know if there are floods. Alongside her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), she sticks out a storm of Hurricane Katrina proportions (although the link is never made explicit) and the following day finds a world submerged beneath still, murky water. This mismatched family then try to survive in these new conditions, staying in a single hut with other locals and trying to avoid the attention of clueless Governmental types north of the barriers. Hushpuppy’s sees this all as a world out of balance, represented by the prehistoric pig-like creatures, the Aurochs, that move ever closer to The Bathtub in their quest for food. So the young girl has to face these Beasts, as well as her father’s illness, a world underwater and a mother who is seen only as a blinking light in the distance.
Naturally, the figure of Hushpuppy is central to the entire film, appearing in almost every scene, and as such the casting had to be right for the film to work. How fortunate, then, that Zeitlin discovered the vibrant, ferocious Quvenzhané Wallis, cast when she was only five years old and filmed when she was six. Wallis’ voiceover is delivered with a mixture of naivety and wisdom beyond her years that rings of Linda Manz in Malick’s Days of Heaven. On screen, she is an electric presence; whether blowtorching her makeshift dinner or cracking open crabs with her bare hands, she is a vivacious bundle of energy that fully holds the film together. She somehow encapsulates both the resilience and the fragility of the community she is a part of. Dwight Henry, too, plays a complex, difficult part with aplomb. Previously working as a baker, Zeitlin cast him with no previous acting experience, yet he manages the tricky job of making an alcoholic, neglectful, borderline abusive father sympathetic, which is crucial for the film to work as his illness gets worse.
Together they represent an America that too often gets ignored and forgotten. However, Beasts is not a social action film, and indeed those who represent charity and activism in this are portrayed as being misguided and ignorant. The do-gooders north of the levees only pay attention to the people of The Bathtub when it directly affects their world. Until then, they are left to fend for themselves, even when all the animals and fish around them begin to die. So it is not a call to arms to fight poverty and injustice. Yet what it does do is show that this place, that most of us know so little about, is not somewhere to be pitied or patronised; instead it just treats them as humans, with compassion and respect. These are people with stories to tell, experiencing both exquisite joy and acute grief, and seen through the eyes of Hushpuppy and Zeitlin’s camera, we get a glimpse into all of these moments. As such, it may be the most human film of the year.
You may leave Beasts feeling as though you personally know some of the people in it, such is the care Zeitlin has for these characters. Yet in spite of how real they feel, this is still a film in which giant prehistoric pigs charge through a wasteland on the hunt for human food. The Aurochs are a strange feature to the film, the most overt manifestation of the ‘beasts’ of the title, and a largely unexplained presence throughout. Having learnt about them in school, Hushpuppy uses the image of them as a projection of her fears that the world is out of balance. Their inexorable progress towards The Bathtub functions as a clock, counting down the days Hushpuppy has to fix it all. It’s an imaginative touch to the film, elevating it from social realism to magic realism, and gives the film a dreamlike tone that is hard to shake, even after the credits have rolled.
This is also thanks to the Director of Photography, Ben Richardson. Using shallow focus, a fluid camera and close ups of faces to great effect, Richardson makes low budget both beautiful and hypnotic. The score, by Dan Romer and director Benh Zeitlin (can he get any more talented?), feels like the bayou-meets-Beirut, a wonderful blend of riotous Cajun bluegrass and soaring trumpet themes. In an early scene, when The Bathtub celebrates a holiday with a dangerous use of fireworks, both the visuals and soundtrack combine in one stunning party of the senses, making for one of the most uplifting scenes of the year. It also functions as a brilliant, bright calling card for Zeitlin, and lets the audience know that this is unlike anything else they’ve seen this year. It’s a vibrant, energetic start to the film, and is sure to leave you absolutely hooked.
It’s not a perfect film, and the rather haphazard structure of the film means that the pace notably lags in a couple of segments. There’s also an unsatisfying conclusion to the role of the Aurochs in the film. Yet this remains a startlingly assured debut, a passionate, accomplished piece of film making that really, truly cares for the characters it portrays. It’s got shades of the great animator Hayao Miyazaki, in theme and aesthetic, and also at times feels as beautiful as Malick, as involving as Werner Herzog, and as imaginative as Terry Gilliam. Yet at the same time, in spite of feeling tonally linked to these masters, it emerges as very much the singular vision of Zeitlin, marking him as a director who cannot be ignored. It’s a powerful, moving, funny, joyous and euphoric film, and may just be the best thing that’s been on cinema screens this year.