Other than Spike Lee’s masterful documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (and its follow-up, If God is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise), and HBO’s Treme, Hurricane Katrina hasn’t brought forth a mass of cultural commentary — mostly due, I suspect, to the overwhelming sadness of the disaster. What else can you say when your country turns its back on you? Beasts of the Southern Wild isn’t the great missing film about the disaster — it’s much too singular and dreamy for that — but it goes a long way towards exploring the heartbreak and hope of those dwelling in the mysterious Mississippi Delta.
The film follows six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) as she wanders around “the Bathtub,” a small community in the deep South built from disparate materials (planks, sheet metal, car parts) and housing a small collection of idiosyncratic weirdos. Her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), is largely absent, wandering the swamps and battling with his demons.
Everyone in the Bathtub fears the rising waters, kept at bay by the levees on the coast and a bit of wishful thinking. Melting ice caps, however, release a tidal wave of flood water, as well as the beasts of the film’s title — giant, ancient creatures that look like wildebeests with extra horns. As the monsters bulldoze their way across the continent — to confront the Bathtub’s denizens, presumably — Hushpuppy and Wink fight to reclaim their home and avoid the evil clutches of FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency).
Beasts looks, sounds and feels a lot like Spike Jonze’s problematic Where the Wild Things Are, as it races hurriedly into metaphor land, where mythical creatures and ramshackle nation states thinly prop up ideas of modern life and morality. Like Jonze, director Benh Zeitlin is often led astray by whimsy — everything from twangy strings on the soundtrack to a twee mentality created by outlandish characters and plotting. It’s often annoying, and makes the first half of the film feel interminable (also largely due to the overuse of nauseating handheld camera work). That is, until Zeitlin reins everything in for a wonderful second act.
And wonderful it is — whatever Beasts may be (Hurricane Katrina commentary, kiddie fable), it’s a masterful example of design and location. Though based on a stage play, it’s made for the cinema, stitching together the tale of Noah’s Ark, Huckleberry Finn, Southern Gothic, and films (like David Gordon Green’s George Washington) that could only exist in the Southern United States. The swampy rot, slimy catfish and post-apocalyptic machinery create a place so otherworldly that it couldn’t be reproduced. It’s a lot like Mad Max, if much more gentle — Wink trawls the river in his boat (a refashioned truck box), while Hushpuppy and her pals romp around the countryside, playing games and nibbling on crabs. And until the film drives towards its inevitable conclusion (both scary, sad and hopeful), it’s content to roam in its own backyard, enjoying a leisurely pace often denied to bigger studio projects.
Much of the attention the film has attracted surrounds newcomer Wallis, who is fantastic indeed, though in the way that a naive six-year-old child would be — bewildered by everything around her. The rest of the cast — all unknowns who scream “found in neighbourhood crab shack” — are uniformly great. Zeitlin sticks to his vision, and whatever problems the film has, it’s utterly sincere. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a frenetic, bursting-at-the-seams tale of magical realism. For those willing to get lost in the film’s vision of backwater insanity, it’s a spellbinding experience.