There’s a strange phenomenon related to the Sundance festival each year. The evolution of the world’s most celebrated independent film festival from its DIY workshopping roots in the 1980s to the corporate bidding frenzy of today is well documented, but one constant is the massive buzz that surrounds, more often than not, a single film each year. What’s odd is how often these films fail, victims of the pressure generated by the relentless hype machine. At 2012’s festival, the ‘it’ film was Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, a grimy fantasy set in the bayous of Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina.
Thankfully, Beasts of the Southern Wild beats the Sundance curse and even exceeds most of the hype. In a tale that feels inspired by ancient mythology, the film follows Hush Puppy (a revelatory Quvenzhané Wallis), a young girl living with her father Wink (Dwight Harris) amongst a nomadic fringe community in an area of Louisiana known as The Bathtub. Following the destruction of the storm, Hush Puppy embarks on a coming of age quest of sorts to find her absent mother, yet what she really finds is a strength of self and community through an understanding of the natural world and her place in it.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is an intense and beautiful sensory experience, and Zeitlin announces himself as a major new talent on the independent scene. He takes the time early on to establish Hush Puppy’s fascination with nature, surrounded as she is with various animals, both pets and livestock, which she seems to love in equal measure. It’s a very haptic film, as Zeitlin lingers on Hush Puppy’s need to touch and feel everything she encounters. When the storm arrives however, rather than seeing the destruction we are only permitted to hear it and, when seeing the film in a dark theatre, it’s deafening and terrifying.
All of the inhabitants of The Bathtub paint interesting and colourful background into the story, but this is Hush Puppy’s story, and Wallis is truly remarkable. It’s the sort of natural non-performance that only a young first time actor can give, and while Harris is maybe a little too loud as Wink, Hush Puppy goes toe-to-toe with him right up until the very moving conclusion. Credit must be given to Zeitlin and his co-writers for crafting such a well formed child character, but they really hit the jackpot when they found the girl to play her.
One of the most unique and original films to come from and American independent in recent memory, Beasts of the Southern Wild is more than deserving of the attention it and its maker are getting. Feeling like it came from the heart of the community it depicts, it is a personal and respectful story of survival on the surface, yet also a much needed reminder of our place in the natural world.