Six year old Hush Puppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) has a lot to deal with for a girl of her age. Her dad is prone to mood-swings exacerbated by his dependence on alcohol. Her home in an area known as the Bathtub, a fictitious fishing community based in southern Louisiana is threatened by rising waters, which are being caused by melting polar ice caps. All the tiny but worldly-wise girl wants is balance in the universe, which will allow her and dad, and all their animals to get on with living.
Part nature documentary, part end of the world drama, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a towering achievement for a director’s first feature film. That director is Benh Zeitlin, who has not only produced a work of real beauty but also brought such powerful performances out of non-professional actors, who were local to the bayou area being portrayed.
Hush Puppy’s father Wink, played by Dwight Henry, is initially presented as a mean alcoholic, but gradually we see the humanity in him, and how fond he is of his daughter. The two of them argue with each other, sometimes screaming and hurling objects at one another, but there are also moments in their relationship of profound affection, and a powerful father-daughter bond that keeps them together.
While many of the scenes take place in washed out bayous and ramshackle huts, there are several which make striking use of colour to contrast with a muddy, watery palette. The celebratory parade at the beginning of the film, full of fireworks, life and happiness is a visually arresting sequence, and the brothel that some of the kids find themselves in towards the end has a vivid and warmly glowing seediness to it.
The lingering nature and wildlife shots are akin to the 2011 Italian ode to rural life La Quattro Volte. Both films created the sense that our lives are inextricably linked with forces of nature, and we must find a way to live in harmony with those forces as they are more ancient and powerful than mere humans.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of the most exciting and beautiful films of the year, and has already picked up the coveted Camera d’Or award at Cannes Film Festival, awarded for the best first feature. It suggests more great and wonderful things to come from Benh Zeitlin and his film collective, known as Court 13. It is a poignant exploration of the existence of an forgotten community who are determined to live their lives as generations have before them, but are increasingly unable to do so in the face of rising water levels and an enforced modernity.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is in cinemas now.