Whether it falls from the sky, rises from below or trickles down a cheek, there is no end to anxiety prompted by water in Beasts of the Southern Wild. This already wildly acclaimed and awarded debut feature from American director and co-scenarist Ben Zeitlin is set in a marshy lowland called the Bathtub, where boisterous survivors of some disaster, all poor or working class to begin with, make do with what meager supplies they can access (which apparently includes a lot of beer).
Echoes of Katrina ripple unambiguously though the film, but the voice we hear reflecting upon all this chaos is that of a girl too young to even remember the hurricane that ate Louisiana. Her name is Hushpuppy (Quevenzhane Wallis) and at six she’s already fierce and resourceful in her dirty white rubber boots, water wings and fecund mane. “I’m recording my story for the scientists of the future,” she tells us. Her father Wink (Dwight Henry) is awfully sick with something or other, usually drunk and at least half-crazy. At his most Quixote-like he attacks a nocturnal storm with shotgun. Her mother’s long-gone, though her ghost speaks to Hushpuppy through an old basketball jersey. Hushpuppy is haunted by visions of collapsing ice caps and giant boars of the Apocalypse crashing through towns. She knows it’s the end times but she’s already set her sights on a new beginning. She and Wink and a handful of their friends scoff at the authorities that have apparently forsaken them, focusing instead on creating the world afresh from what they can see and touch.
The solidarity between blacks and white, adults and children, the cultivated naiveté and the quietly epic quality to this narrative about a weary father and his progeny traversing a dying landscape tempt one to sum up Beasts of the Southern Wild as George Washington meets The Road, though the mash-up comparison doesn’t do favours for any of the works in question. To Zeitlin’s credit, this film has its own singular ambitions, and frankly lacks the very different sorts of funk and aesthetic rigour of either of its noted cinematic kin. It has an amazing sequence in which four little girls are welcomed into a floating brothel. It’s like something out of Apocalypse Now. Or maybe The Odyssey. But there are also many scenes that feel oddly schematic and yet somehow directionless. Zeitlin was raised by folklorists, and balancing folklore with naturalism is a trick that can stump more experienced filmmakers.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is at once extraordinary and sort of disappointing. Extraordinary because it brings myth, colour and adventure even to a woefully neglected region and people of the United States and a shared trauma still so fresh in our memory. Disappointing because its overbearing score (co-composed by Zeitlin) is so determined to not let five minutes pass without a flood of stoic uplift, because Wallis’ angry pout gradually pushes the limits of precociousness, while Henry’s blustery performance just pushes period (I like both actors very much, but they’re too often hitting the same note); because a story such as this one, shaped around a child’s experience, should leave more room for wonder and retain a more heightened sensitivity to nature and accident. I don’t mean to rain on Zeitlin’s well-earned parade, it’s just that, like Hushpuppy, I can imagine bigger and better things a-coming.