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Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild

Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild, 2012, color film in Super 16 mm, 91 minutes. Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis). Production still. Photo: Jess Pinkham.

A PRIMAL EXPERIENCE of the beginning of the end of the world, Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature, Beasts of the Southern Wild, opens amid chaos and closes with catharsis. Beasts is, above all, a film about girlhood told through the voice, eyes, and ears of a six-year-old. It is not so much a work of magical realism as a depiction of the way the world has impressed itself on the imagination of a particular girl named Hushpuppy (a remarkably concentrated and expressive Quvenzhané Wallis). Hushpuppy lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), and a ragtag bande à part in the Bathtub, a rusting, broken-down shantytown deep in the lush, bountiful Louisiana marshlands, south of the levees that these bayou dwellers rightfully scorn. How much good did such man-made defenses do New Orleans?

Alcoholic and terminally ill but still possessed of the voice and manner of a drill sergeant, Wink is determined to teach his daughter the skills she needs to survive on her own. The bond between the father and the daughter who has already modeled herself on him is the heart of the film. Separation anxiety defines its nervous system. Hushpuppy’s mother is long gone—“She swam away” is how Wink explains it—and her father is dying. One might say that Hushpuppy’s journey involves her coming to terms with death and learning that what has been lost can be reclaimed as memory. While Wink’s lessons are hands-on and occasionally involve some shoving and slapping, which Hushpuppy returns in kind, it is from the local K–12 teacher (no Louisiana school board would have licensed her) that she gets her precocious understanding that “the fabric of the universe is coming unraveled.” When Hushpuppy tries to hide from the hurricane that will flood the Bathtub, she sees in her mind’s eye the icy water from the melting polar caps rushing toward her fragile tropical paradise and with it herds of “aurochs,” giant prehistoric boarlike creatures let loose from their glacial graves. Beasts is an ecological fairy tale, both cautionary and inspiring. It is a measure of the film’s incantatory power that one never thinks, while under its spell, that Hush-puppy’s aurochs are probably just local farm animals gone feral. Ben Richardson’s handheld, often close-up, Super 16–mm lensing plays a major role in immersing us in Hushpuppy’s world by suggesting her immediate whirligig responses to sights and sounds, and the fiercely rhythmic, omnipresent zydeco-inflected score is similarly enveloping.

Trailer for Beasts of the Southern Wild, 2012

Beasts evokes as much rapture as pathos. Indeed, for a film that embraces spontaneity and abandon—the wildness in all things—it is exquisitely balanced in its contradictions and filled with rhyming scenes and images. One of the first things we see Hushpuppy do is lay her hand against the body of a pig and cock her head to listen for the heartbeat that marks the difference between sleep and death. Much later, she lies against Wink’s chest as his pulse slows and fades into nothingness. By then she has found, in the film’s most ecstatic, miragelike sequence, the mother for whom she yearns—a prostitute who works on the Floating Catfish Shack. As they dance together in the soft, golden light, Hushpuppy has a vision of herself as an infant being lifted high above her father’s head and returned to safety, nestled against his chest. One intense sensory experience recalls another buried deeper in memory, the immediate and the recollected becoming one in the imagination. Indeed, the entire film hovers between the tumultuous immediacy of the present and the lyricism of a fairy tale.

Should I have mentioned that Hushpuppy and Wink are African-American? While the title Beasts of the Southern Wild embraces every person, animal, fish, insect, flower, and tree in the film, these two characters are the most important “beasts.” The film’s title has a complicated derivation that goes back to a poem by William Blake via Doris Betts’s 1973 short story “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Betts’s title made its way into a play by Lucy Alibar, which become the starting point for the film’s script, written by Zeitlin and Alibar. Other than being set in the South, Betts’s stories themselves have nothing to do with the film, but, oddly, Blake’s poem, “The Little Black Boy,” does. It begins: “My mother bore me in the southern wild, / And I am black, but O! my soul is white.” Using the voice of an African child, Blake conjures a heaven where flesh (and therefore difference) does not exist. But in this heaven, the little black boy has the moral high ground, because his role is to teach the white colonialist oppressors to love the Africans they’ve oppressed. Did Blake fall into the “magical Negro” trap before that cliché (and its equally reductive critique) even existed? Has Zeitlin, a white filmmaker who went down to the Big Easy in the aftermath of Katrina and made a film that tells a story of black survival, been caught in the same snare? The question must be asked because color blindness does not exist—Blake’s heaven and Zeitlin’s bayou paradise notwithstanding. Is Zeitlin damnably presumptuous in assuming the voice of another? Or does his attempt to conjure a universal subjectivity through the particularities of a black child fall well within the bounds of artistic license? These are questions more easily asked than comfortably answered. One thing we do know: As a young man, Benh Zeitlin fell in love with the black culture of New Orleans and made a film that is a compelling, contagious expression of that love.

Beasts of the Southern Wild opens in New York and Los Angeles on June 27.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight & Sound.