Tough Love: Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts Of The Southern Wild (2012) – DVD review
Zeitlin’s political fairytale about a homegrown disaster sees the visionary virtues of American cinema conquer the vice of tragedy porn.
Beasts Of The Southern Wild
(Benh Zeitlin, 2012)
The history of American film is littered with directors who follow in the slipstream of real-life tragedies around the world like ambulance chasers, filming the plight of other cultures and then safely returning to the States once they’ve wrapped. But what if the tragedy happened at home?
In the space of a decade-and-a-bit, Americans have been shocked not once but twice on home soil. 9/11 has produced the more obvious responses, from laments for heroes like World Trade Center to politically-charged thrillers like Zero Dark Thirty. But Hurricane Katrina – an implacable, unstoppable foe – has arguably produced more interesting movies. From The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button’s philosophical use of its waves washing away the past, to When The Levee Breaks’ deconstruction of American society, it’s an event that has made American filmmakers stop and ask: really, here?
Beasts Of The Southern Wild, the tale of a fictional bayou community (the Bathtub) threatened by rising tides, provides a novel slant on this genre: for once, the filmmakers are the victims, with the non-professional cast drawn from the location’s real-life equivalents and the director a resident in Louisiana. Sure, the grammar of the film cleaves to ‘tourist porn’ tropes – a bittersweet sentimentality, a beauty-amidst-rubbish aesthetic, the naive poetry of its illiterate but eloquent child narrator, Hushpuppy – but there’s something new here, too: a collapsing of distance. Where so many films of this type ring false because the earnest attempts to feel the local’s perspective are too studied, this has a pain and defiance that comes from being at the centre of the storm.
And yet debutant director Zeitlin is remarkably unconcerned with neo-realism, treating the material a fantastical approach that suggests a career which will have one foot in New Orleans and the other in Hollywood. Zeitlin conjures up set-pieces – notably the moment Hushpuppy accidentally torches her home – which have a bravura, surreal flourish. The weird sequence where the inhabitants of the Bathtub are taken to a shelter feel less like post-Katrina survival documentaries such as Trouble The Water than the quarantine scenes in E.T. And, most obviously, there’s the magic realism of mythical, ice age Aurochs (the titular Beasts) being thawed out by climate chance and making their way to kick the modern world’s metaphorical ass.
It’s a fairytale, in other words, and one that is enhanced – rather than neutered – by the faux-realism of its construction. As a child’s eye view of the world, its nearest equivalent in recent years is Where The Wild Things Are, in which the kid ends up being the de facto leader of a bunch of child-like adults (and the surging, indie-esque score here echoes Karen O’s work in that film, too). The broad strokes of the cluttered, threadbare existence in the Bathtub aren’t meant to be a portrait of an actual community but a picture-book allegory for life beyond the levee, with New Orleans’ factories and refineries playing the role of the cruel citadels under which the village folk live their existence.
This is bold, startling filmmaking because of how close it is to being trite, condescending nonsense. Pitched even an inch away from where it lands, it would be disastrous –and you can totally understand why Zeitlin apparently refused to watch the dailies while he was shooting. The temptation to sculpt such a fine, fragile balance must have been strong, but it’s the kind of film that can only work instinctively. Hence the tenuous wisps of plot, camerawork that veers from Malick-esque introspection to rushing exhilaration, and the emphasis on startling newcomers Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy and Dwight Henry as her father, Wink.
These are performances built on absolute trust, not only the non-professional actors’ for their director but vice versa. Zeitlin provides a model for how to film a child lead, giving Wallis the freedom to play in the film’s created world. At times, she’s as delicate as a flower; at others, as fierce as a warrior: but there’s absolutely no precocity in those shifts because there’s seemingly no forethought or rehearsal in her reactions.
Arguably, though, the film is stolen by Henry, a local baker who gives an unvarnished, complex portrayal of the difficulties of being a single father. There’s a real sadness to the neglect and abuse Hushpuppy suffers from Wink’s volatile, part-time love, and a lot of their scenes together are very uncomfortable to witness. But Zeitlin’s empathy is total: the film’s most transcendental moment is a flashback to a memory Hushpuppy couldn’t possibly have had, of Wink taking his newborn daughter outside to feel the air. It’s the film in a nutshell: at once sharing the majesty of nature and exposing the child to elements that are only to get more brutal. Tough love, in other words, and a marker of what Zeitlin has achieved in his sad yet defiant reminder that not even America is exempt the vagaries of fate as the world slides towards environmental disaster.