Time was when a filmmaker would arrive with a promising debut, which would encourage you to watch their next few films to see their talent develop. Nowadays, writer-directors often seem to arrive fully formed, their talents already honed, their technique with actors (one of the most difficult aspects of directing) well judged, their instincts for scripting, shooting and cutting preternaturally developed. While its reach sometimes exceeds its grasp, Benh Zeitlin’s ambitious and exquisitely imagined fable Beasts of the Southern Wild (adapted from Lucy Alibar’s stage play ‘Juicy and Delicious’) is one such film, appearing as if out of nowhere, but made with the artistry and skill of Badlands-era Terrence Malick.
‘Hushpuppy’ (Quvenzhané Wallis) is a six-year-old girl, who lives with her crotchety dad, Wink (Dwight Henry) in the wilds of a flooded Louisiana bayou nicknamed ‘The Bathtub’, scratching out a hardscrabble existence that makes Winter’s Bone look like Made in Chelsea. The location is deliberately vague; although the Isle de Jean Charles is glimpsed on a map in one scene, the important thing is that they live on the seaward side of the famous Louisiana levee. The temporal setting is similarly non-specific, and while it might be possible to imagine Hushpuppy’s world as post-apocalyptic, it seems to take place just before Hurricane Katrina, or a similar catastrophe, strikes the region. The storm spells disaster for the denizens of The Bathtub, but not in the way one might expect: with their ramshackle homes submerged under salt water, killing off the flora, fauna and fish on which their lives depend, Hushpuppy and the others are faced with mandatory evacuation, forced – literally – to give up their independence, and take shelter in a facility run by a charity or church.
“Strong animals know when your hearts are weak,” Hushpuppy intones in the omnipresent voiceover, with a wisdom that’s beyond her years yet entirely fitting for her character. “That makes them hungry. And then they start coming.” She could be talking about the imaginary, oversized beasts that start appearing in the flooded wasteland the storm leaves behind, but one has the nagging feeling she may be talking another kind of voracious beast moving in for the kill: people. “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right,” Hushpuppy observes, more matter-of-factly than portentously. “If one piece breaks, even a little bit, the entire universe will get busted.” Her narration, like the film itself, is loaded with metaphor, but never burdened with it, and rarely has the grown-up world looked so unfathomable through the eyes of a child.
At times, Beasts of the Southern Wild feels like a worm’s eye view of the coming global cataclysm, when the ice caps finally melt, the seas rise, and civilization as we know it becomes all but impossible to maintain. In this sense, the term ‘post-apocalyptic’ suddenly seems relative. It’s an extraordinarily assured, deeply poetic and emotionally captivating film that marks out Zehn as a talent to watch, and Louisiana native Wallis (a mere five years old when filming began) a likely candidate for youngest ever Oscar nominee. ★★★★★