BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
On one level, Beasts of the Southern Wild sets out to be an ethnographic documentation of the lifestyle of the people of the real-life Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana, a small islet that is slowly disappearing into Terrebone Bay. You have no idea whether the film depiction of the islands ramshackle culture that seems to exist apart from the rest of the world is one that really exists or has been fictionalised for the film it seems difficult to believe that people in the US would live in such impoverished conditions. In any other film, you would be expected to express a certain horror at the squalor of the ramshackle homes and alcohol problems the people of The Bathtub have, while some of Dwight Henrys parenting methods would leave child social services doing a double-take or three. Contrarily, Benh Zeiltin observes without any kind of judgement at most, the triumphal march that ends the film is one that demonstrates an admiration of the community spirit of these outsiders. Perhaps one of the most unique aspects of the film is the production design where it seems that every aspect of the world around the characters is something that has been salvaged from scrap, leading to a uniquely colourful hand-built look that is a small work of art in itself.
Although it is never directly specified as such, the events of Hurricane Katrina hang over Beasts of the Southern Wild. Certainly, this is a film that portrays the devastation in ways that are very different to any other film likely to be made about the event, which will almost certainly go either for the disaster movie approach or for human melodramatics. The film is directed in terms of a series of surreal drifts through images of the culture and of the survivors trying to cope in the aftermath of the disaster. The scenes where the locals are placed in the quarantine hospital shows the world beyond The Bathtub as a culture that is almost alien to them.
The films most unique aspect is its voice. Six year-old Quvenzhane Wallis gained a great deal of attention for her performance even ended up receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. The performance itself is unremarkable what people seem to be drawn towards is the contrast of the realistically grounded world she lives in and the way she narrates, giving a sometimes witty, sometimes potently imagery-laden outlook of everything via a childs logic that conflates simple events into the mythological. The storm is seen in terms of a primal view of the world, a beacon on the horizon a light a beckoning from her lost mother. Even Quvenzhanes visit to a floating brothel in the midst of the bay is built up into a magical journey into an Aladdins cave of light bulbs.
The film is also a Magical Realist one. One of the predominant images throughout is that of the aurochs giant prehistoric animals that appear to be brought to life out of an iceberg that has been thawed by global warming. You are never entirely sure if the aurochs are meant to be metaphorical or actual you presume the former until near the end where Benh Zeitlin stages a confrontation between the aurochs and Quvenzhane Wallis. The one complaint about this is that the film uses this as symbolism that never seems to particularly connect to anything you are never sure what dark force the aurochs represent and what their bowing down to Quvenzhane Wallis at the end is meant to mean. The other complaint might be an anthropological quibble where aurochs are in actuality supposed to be prehistoric cattle, not unlike buffalo, whereas the film imagines them looking like giant-sized boar.
Benh Zeitlin has been readily compared to the obvious influence of Terrence Malick of Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), New World (2005) and The Tree of Life (2011) fame. Like Malick, Zeitlin sees landscape and nature as an echo of inner emotions and much of his film is directed in terms of hauntingly intimate voiceovers. Perhaps more so than Terrence Malick, the filmmaker that Benh Zeitlins quasi-mythological view of the world reminded me of the most is New Zealands least internationally recognised talent Vincent Ward who has crafted similar kinds of films that burst with uniquely alien imagery of the familiar in efforts like The Navigator: A Mediaeval Odyssey (1988) and Map of the Human Heart (1993). In particular, what Beasts of the Southern Wild reminds of is Vincent Wards Vigil (1985), which told a similar near-wordless view of life in a remote corner of the world through the eye of a young girl, where the entire film was stripped to a primal landscape told in terms of mythological imagery.