It’s always both a thrilling and disappointing experience when you see a nearly perfect movie in the first half of the year. Thrilling because you’ve experienced something transformative, but disappointing because you expect nothing else that year will measure up. I have seen BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD twice in screenings sponsored by the Independent Film Festival of Boston, first at The Brattle Theater in Cambridge, and next at The Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline. I saw it a third time a month into its general release. I can’t tell you the last time I saw a movie three times in a theater; it was probably over a decade ago. Under ordinary circumstances, I would have composed my thoughts and posted this article last month, or earlier. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD is, however, anything but ordinary circumstances. As I walked home from the Brattle after that first viewing, my mother called. I could barely tell her the title without my voice cracking. When was the last time you saw a grown man walking down the street blithering with a quivering lip and a lump in his throat to his mother? That is what this movie can do to you.
Without getting overtly social or political about it, BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD tells the story of those who will be America’s frontline casualties in the escalation of climate change. Quvenzhané Wallis plays Hushpuppy, a young girl who lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry), in a collection of bayou islands south of New Orleans, herein known as The Bathtub. Hushpuppy and Wink live in a neighborhood where folks are born, live, and die mostly off the grid. They cook by outdoor grill, there isn’t a TV in site; the only traces of electricity are the refrigerators that keep the beer cold.
If there is a social message at play, it is obscured by the sort of layers of subtext and metaphor found in some of your better science fiction films. Hushpuppy learns in school about ancient cave paintings depicting humans hunting aurochs bulls, a lesson creatively delivered via a tattoo. She doesn’t need school to teach her about global climate change; she sees it in the water level rising against the levy that protects New Orleans, the levy that leaves the Bathtub to sink. In Hushpuppy’s imagination she sees a family of aurochs frozen in the arctic ice. She also sees the aurochs released when their berg cracks free, floats south, and melts. The Q&A sessions in the screenings I attended drew multiple interpretations of what the aurochs stood for. Far be it from me, or the film, to make the meaning of these giant beasts abundantly clear for you. Part of what makes this story so compelling is its ability to incite viewers to insert their own ideology, however accurately, into the lives of these characters.
The Bathtub’s folks are both the original 99%, and the original Tea Party. You won’t have to look too far on the IMDB message boards to find kneejerk reactions of one political extreme or another. There are liberals who feel that the Bathtub’s population needs to be rescued and given access to the suburban dream of Target and Starbucks. There are conservatives who see them as abusers of the welfare system. Both are mistaken: the Bathtub doesn’t want to be rescued, it wants to be left the hell alone, as we see the day FEMA comes knocking on their doors. This is a group that fends for itself; we never see them cashing a welfare check, we see them raising their own produce and livestock. We also see them pouring out large enough nets of seafood that it is more reasonable to assume that they make their living on a boat rather than off the dole.
Some see this is a film about African Americans, but this ignores other facets. Hushpuppy & Wink are African American, as are several supporting characters, but there are a roughly equal number of white characters living in The Bathtub. This place reminds me of stories my dad, The Fats, told me of growing up in Passaic, NJ during the Depression. He lived within the same neighborhood as Italian Catholics, Irish Protestants, African Americans, Jews, Cubans, Asians, Central Americans, and a family who ran a Halal meat market. Passaic in the 1930’s and the Bathtub now, and this film, transcend race or gender or generation. These characters and this story are sewn together by the same thread that tied my dad’s neighborhood. In the best of times and the worst of times, this is one city.
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD is more akin to the character driven films of 1970’s American cinema, and the sensual location experiences of the past few decades of European films, than a contemporary boardroom generated studio product. There is a story here, but it is so thoroughly seen through Hushpuppy’s eyes that the audience needs to give it the same latitude we would give any child attempting to tell a complex story. The reward for your patience is the poetry of Huspuppy’s perception, and Quvenzhané Wallis’ relentless ability to convince us that this is simply the way she sees the world. That innocent and enlightened perception is never more evident than in a flashback sequence whereHushpuppy tells us about her missing mother. The entire journey of this film is Hushpuppy confronting mortality: her mother’s, her father’s, the planet’s, and her place in all three.
Benh Zeitlin avoids most of the saccharine pitfalls that a coming of age story could have fallen into. He often shoots from Hushpuppy’s eye level, making Dwight Henry’s Wink as imposing as the imaginary aurochs. This film is also a feat of low budget sound design like we haven’t heard since THE HURT LOCKER. Movies with one hundred times Zeitlin’s budget are too often tales full of sound and fury signifying nothing. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD features a hurricane sequence as violent as any of the weather sequences in TWISTER, but here the intensity is achieved almost entirely through sound. Hushpuppy’s metaphysical quest in search of her mother is a stirring use of silence and Felliniesque exaggeration of sound and music.
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD takes you to a corner of the United States that few have ever seen, and explores what is strongest in our national character, to expose our shared humanity. That is mighty ambitious for any film crew, but especially so for a cast and crew of which many were making their first feature length film. I don’t know yet if this is my favorite movie of the year, but it is the most emotionally exhausting and hauntingly expressive movie I’ve seen in a long long time.