For once, you can believe the hype. Sundance narrative jury prize winner Beasts of the Southern Wild was surely one of the best films at 2012's (mostly mediocre) Sundance fest, and it's an added feather in the Sundance cap that the project was nurtured for over three years in the Institute's labs before filming began.
That long development process could hurt this challenging but well-wrought Hurricane Katrina fable, which might have resonated with audiences more strongly on the fifth anniversary of the disaster than it will on the seventh. But this exuberant and sustained parable of renewal was always going to be driven by discerning audiences and critical response, which is sure to be ecstatic. Sane print and advertising expenditures and a modest arthouse run should recoup Fox Searchlight's small (less than a million) acquisition investment; seek this one out though, because it's too unique and too defiantly strange to survive for long in today's Darwinian and consumerist exhibition environment.
Working with a cast of well-chosen non-actors, first-time director Benh Zeitlin accomplishes a remarkable debut—energetically staged, alternately lyrical and surreal, and fueled equally by righteous anger over the destruction of the Gulf Coast and by an awestruck wonder at the tenacity of the region's peoples. Beasts is catastrophe as fairytale: a flood is coming to "the Bathtub" (read: the low-lying wards of New Orleans), a poor but rowdy world of makeshift housing, raunchy revelers and pagan energy, perched precariously on the wrong side of a Gulf Coast levy. Most of the residents are packing up to leave, but not African-American patriarch Wink (Dwight Henry), and not his 6-year-old daughter Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis).
Despite Wink's failing health and Hushpuppy's youth, father and daughter ride out the storm, only to be ripped from their waterlogged home by callous government relief workers after Wink blows a hole in the levy to drain the Bathtub by flooding the more affluent communities on the other side. But Wink, Hushpuppy and the equally resilient band that survived the storm beside them aren't about to be relocated to a "safer" place—they know where they belong, and they'll die if they must to return there.
The folktale microcosm allows Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar a wide latitude in creating a Katrina zone with a mythic visual force powerful enough to suggest the unimaginable scale of the 2005 disaster. The Bathtub's residents are society's cast-offs, and they live in a world fashioned from debris—houses that are equal parts mobile home and industrial discards, boats made of repurposed pick-up truck beds. When the storm hits with missile-like force, Wink reacts by climbing onto his patchwork roof and shooting back at it—a mad and exhilarating image of individual defiance against impossible and inhuman force.
As in that other great Southern fable "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," the main focus in Beasts of the Southern Wild is on a child—Wallis' Hushpuppy, vivified by one of the most indelible child performances in recent memory. Beasts is shot almost entirely from Hushpuppy's point of view, and the character is in virtually every scene—raging, cowering, exploring, and, most importantly, seething with life. Wallis' feral, passionate wild child would be remarkable from any actor of any age; from a prepubescent novice, she is little short of a miracle. Hushpuppy carries the movie, lending a child-like sense of openness and wonder that makes even the most outrageous visual conceits seem vivid and true.
In remaking one of the most destructive natural disasters in American history into a bildungsroman of resurrection and rebirth, Zeitlin makes the point that the life force he sees everywhere in the disaster region is stronger and more persevering than anything God or man can throw at it. Despite the tragedy that inspired it, Beasts is ultimately not a requiem but a celebration—a survival tale, told in the leering, hallucinatory colors of a garish Mardi Gras float. Weird, resonant and moving, Beasts of the Southern Wild honors the Gulf Coast in the most appropriate way possible: by inventing a ferocious cinematic patois that, as the storm rises, rages right back.
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Cast: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Jonshel Alexander
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Screenwriter: Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin
Producers: Michael Gottwald, Dan Janvey, Josh Penn
Running time: 93 min.
Rating: Unrated, but with frightening scenes of natural disaster, child endangerment
Release date: TBD