FILM In the annual hothouse atmosphere of Sundance, even mediocre or bad new American narrative features are cocooned in an atmosphere of self-congratulation — at least until the reviews come out a few hours later. Movies that are actually pretty good invariably become “great” for the duration of the festival; with everyone searching for something to hyperventilate about, one need only light a birthday candle to set off a roman candle of hyperbole. Most of these movies come out a few months, waving their festival awards, only to look significantly diminished in the sober light of day (and decreased altitude). Suddenly they’re, well, just pretty good.
With the occasional exception, of course. Six months after winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance (and a Cannes Camera d’Or), Beasts of the Southern Wild proves capable of enduring a second or third viewing with its originality and strangeness fully intact. Magical realism is a primarily literary device that isn’t attempted very often in U.S. cinema, and succeeds very rarely. But this intersection between Faulkner and fairy tale, a fable about — improbably — Hurricane Katrina, is mysterious and unruly and enchanting, an imaginative leap of unusual ambition and accomplishment for a first feature.
Ostensibly based on a stage play — co-scenarist Lucy Alibar’s Juicy and Delicious, said to be a bluegrass musical — Benh Zeitlin’s film is wildly cinematic from the outset, as voiceover narration from six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) offers simple commentary on her rather fantastical life. She abides in the Bathtub, an imaginary chunk of bayou country south of New Orleans whose residents live closer to nature, amid the detritus of civilization. Seemingly everything is some alchemical combination of scrap heap, flesh, and soil. What might look like an unhygienic, frightening, child-abusive nightmare to any Social Services authority is to Hushpuppy a constant playground, and to her elders a sort of pagan-libertarian utopia.
Before the story has gotten properly started there’s a community celebration with fireworks, music, guns fired into the air, babies crawling everywhere — a celebration of nothing in particular, at least that we can tell. But as our heroine says, “The Bathtub has more holidays than the rest of the world.” It is clear that, for that and many other reasons, its citizens have no use for the rest of the world.
She lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) — albeit in separate ramshackle trailers on stilts — a fierce, erratic man with unknown demons who’s seldom outright unkind but acts less like a father than an Outward Bound coach, teaching his charge the tools to survive on her own. (In addition to slopping the livestock and pets, she can already make dinner for herself, lighting the stove with a blowtorch.) But one day he disappears, leaving Hushpuppy without human company beyond the memory of a long-absent mother she nonetheless frequently talks to. When Wink returns, it’s in a hospital gown and bracelet; whatever happened, he doesn’t want to discuss it.
Soon they have bigger things to worry about, anyway, as “the storm” is coming — prompting all but a few stubborn holdouts (well-fortified by alcohol) to evacuate the Bathtub. Wink and child aren’t going anywhere, waiting it out instead in a shack then floating to safety in their boat (a decapitated truck bed).
The area is fully flooded, however, and an illegal breach of a remaining levee drains it but can’t repair the devastation wrought on plants, animals, and homes. The holdouts are forced at federal gunpoint to evacuate at last, sequestered in a relief shelter-hospital whose sterility and order is as alien to them as the surface of Mars. Worse, this exile hastens the serious illness Wink was able to keep (mostly) at bay in the Bathtub — as the wary say, hospitals are where sick people go to die.
With its elements of magic (or at least the illustration of a child’s belief in such), mythological exodus, and evolutionary biology — Gina Montana’s Amazonian schoolmarm Miss Bathsheeba defines her eat-or-be-eaten perspective with “Everything is part of the buffet of the universe” — Beasts goes way out on a conceptual limb. Particularly for a low-budget movie with non-professional actors; you could argue it achieves many (if not more) of the same goals Terrence Malick’s 2011 The Tree of Life did at a fraction of that film’s cost and length. Its messiness is an organic virtue, with grainy imagery whose hand-held spastic camerawork (by Ben Richardson) is for once much more than a trendy stylistic choice; the instability feels in synch with Hushpuppy’s world, in vibrates with the slightest clue provided by glance, weather, or instinct.
The frenetic yet amorphous atmosphere might on a first viewing make you question whether there’s really much story beneath the busy aesthetic surface, but in fact for all its freely digressive air Beasts is pretty tightly constructed. (Nonetheless, you can imagine the editors scratching their heads initially over how this footage might possibly cut together, unless they were in on the project from the start.) Adding to that spectral, hyperreal effect is a score by Dan Zomer and Zeitlin that combines keening or plucked strings with the ethereal chime of a glockenspiel, at times sounding like a Sufjan Stevens instrumental.
There are moments of real enchantment, like an all-girls’ side trip to a floating bordello whose bosomy ladies surrender to their maternal instincts, or the recurrent glimpses that see Hushpuppy’s hog gradually morph into a thundering pack of tusked, primeval wild boars. (Toward the end especially, this latter effect underlines the notion that the film’s closest recent antecedent is Spike Jonze’s 2009 Where the Wind Things Are, another child’s feral fantasy.)
Through it all the pint-sized Wallis (who was just five when she was chosen from some 4000 auditioning kids) strides with astonishing alertness and confidence, a vulnerable minor one minute, as regally self-possessed as Pam Grier in Coffy (1973) the next.
It would almost be a shame if she did anything else — this performance would be best preserved as a mysterious lone bolt from the blue, just as the movie itself seems to capture unrepeatable lightning in a bottle.
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD opens Fri/6 in San Francisco.