“The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece… the entire universe will get busted.”
Generally when the Oscars comes around, there’s a surprise movie included in the Best Film category – a low-budget, indie movie (Her, this year), perhaps, or a genre film (remember when District 9 was nominated?). They rarely (if ever) win, but it’s at least an acknowledgement from the Academy that they exist. In 2013, Beasts of the Southern Wild was nominated for four Oscars – Best Film, Best Director (Benh Zeitlin), Best Actress (the impossibly named Quvenzhané Wallis, the youngest Oscar nominee in this category to date) and Best Adapted Screenplay. It won none of them, inevitably, and perhaps it didn’t deserve to, though arguably it is a more distinctive, memorable movie than that year’s winner Argo and, while it was only a matter of time before Jennifer Lawrence secured her acting gong, based on their nominated performances, Wallis was a far more impressive surprise. Still, the nominations alone gave Beasts of the Southern Wild some much needed publicity. The film itself received very mixed reviews on release; if it had won, it would have surely been a controversial choice.
This is Zeitlin’s first feature film. Based in New Orleans, he is part of a filmmaking collective, Court 13, that had, until this point, concentrated on shorts. The collective has a distinctive style, clearly rooted in their surroundings, and a dedication to their craft that some might argue was downright irresponsible (you can read more about their previous escapades in an article I wrote way back in 2010). Having made the acclaimed, award winning short film Glory at Sea in 2008, Beasts of the Southern Wild feels very much like an continuation of it, both in terms of visuals and plot – though it is in no way a remake or extended version of the same story. Both are clearly motivated by Hurricane Katrina and the events that followed it; both are set in an unnamed community obviously inspired by New Orleans (particularly the poor areas); both reject CGI in favour of man-made objects – notably a distinctive, upcycled kind of world, in which detritus and trash is transformed into homes, boats, and curios. Court 13’s world is, in many ways, a very childish one – one in which they, as adults and filmmakers, continue to make forts out of pillows and sheets, precariously balanced on the backs of chairs and wedged between doors and bookshelves. There’s a very natural, light-hearted, idealistic sensibility at play that somehow manages to met with much divisive response – perhaps distinguishing the cynical from the playful, the young-at-heart from the jaded realists.
Beasts of the Southern Wild presents a fantasy world, one recognisable yet different; the Bathtub, a small community of unemployed drunkards and their grubby children somewhere on the outskirts of the world we are familiar with. It’s a swampy environment, inviting in the way that a jungle is – a place you’d enter with equal measures of trepidation and excitement. There Hushpuppy (Wallis) lives with her alcoholic father, a man clearly incapable of providing any kind of balanced home-life for his child, a parent whose only way of showing love is by making his daughter a survivor. The community, a tight-knit but unromantically presented group of layabouts and boozers, are awaiting the great flood promised by the melting ice caps, and Hushpuppy knows that when the glaciers melt, great prehistoric aurochs (giant tusked boars) will begin their journey to her precious home.
Those who criticised the film challenged its idealistic view, questioning the appropriateness of championing alcoholism, unemployment, and child neglect. Yet the Bathtub is a particularly unglamorous place, and Zeitlin never seems to really endorse the actions of Hushpuppy’s father in particular. The characters, while located in this fantasy-reality, are presented very much as people – flawed people whose motivations and rationale often seem to remain out of our grasp. We only ever get an insight into Hushpuppy’s mind – we are guided by her voice-over narration while on screen she remains mostly silent. Wallis’ perfectly embodies Hushpuppy, this quiet, stoic child who seems in many ways wise beyond her years and in others is naively childish. Without saying a word she brings a pensive, contemplative, determined personality to the character, and it goes without saying that much of the film’s success relies on the audience being willing to follow her journey.
Where Beasts of the Southern Wild falters is the late intrusion of the real world into the fantasyland of the Bathtub. It’s easy to get drawn into the community spirit and strange aesthetic of this district, and it’s disorienting when, all of a sudden, the characters find themselves evacuated by the authorities and dumped in a sterile hospital/shelter. There fantasy and reality clash, and it’s an uncomfortable clash, one further emphasised by the largely unexplained illness plaguing Hushpuppy’s father. Yet this is, happily, a minor blip in the movie, one that perhaps carries more weight on a metaphorical level than an aesthetic or narrative one.
Zeitlin’s film is a curious picture – it feels small, intimate and hand-made, clearly revealing the Court’s motivations and inspirations. It is, of course, strengthened by the events of Hurricane Katrina, but even more than that, it feels so obviously rooted in Louisiana and the atmosphere of the Big Easy – they need never mention the words New Orleans, but there’s no doubt as to where its creators are based. What the film’s critics rarely mention, although it is perhaps the only thing that really encourages its audience to feel as though the world presented is a desirable one, is the soundtrack – a score written by Zeitlin and Dan Romer that brings a playful joy to the movie. The soundtrack is deeply manipulative, directing us to feel elation, sadness, and yet more elation. And that’s really the crux of Beasts of the Southern Wild: it’s a film that, despite the trash and the hardship, is filled with optimism and light. Whether you buy into it or not, well, that’s really up to you.
(Note: you can also read my programme note for Beasts of the Southern Wild here)