“Beast it!! Beast it!!” are the words chanted by the whimsical group of post-Katrina bayou squatters as six-year-old Hushpuppy breaks open the crab shell and sucks the delicious, white meat from the middle. The dinner scene exemplifies the joyful exuberance of life that prevails despite the profound sadness and poverty found throughout Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild.
On Saturday night I walked to the High Museum’s Rich Theater for a sneak preview of the film. Having won prizes at Cannes and Sundance, Beasts already has the buzz of a highly successful independent film. Comprised entirely of non-actors, the film follows the fanciful imagination and brutal reality of six-year-old Hushpuppy living in “The Bathtub,” Louisiana. The narrative takes place sometime after Katrina in a nearly post-apocalyptic setting of vast waterlogged landscapes that dwarf the remaining people and houses.
The film opens with voice-over narration as Hushpuppy tells her story. She runs around the dilapidated property and tumbledown trailer wearing a white tank top and orange boys underwear, frequently pausing to listen to an animal or color on a piece of card board. Meals include a recently slaughtered chicken eaten by hand or cat food heated up on the stove. Hushpuppy and her father Wink spend their days on the boat – a buoyant truck bed powered by a motor – and catch crawfish by hand. Wink strives to harden Hushpuppy and to make her a self-sufficient and strong “man” of the world.
Magical realism runs deep in the film as Hushpuppy imagines aurochs – a prehistoric beast resembling a terrifying boar. The director Zeitlin uses these imagined creatures to represent the reality of Hushpuppy’s situation and the presence of danger that she confronts everyday. Zeitlin’s camera goes back and forth between Hushpuppy’s daily life and the primordial scenes of the beasts emerging from the melting polar icecaps. By the end of the film, we have the small Hushpuppy in courageous profile facing the aurochs saying, “I gotta take care of mine,” and she walks towards her ailing father. The Biblical animal imagery evokes Noah’s Arc and the aftermath of the flood.
Zeitlin tells a story of human suffering and endurance from the perspective of a child mature beyond her years. She exudes wisdom that cannot be taught. The poetic shot compositions show the microcosms of the world that only a child would notice. A close up of the crawfish dumped out on the table with the small fish still alive and jumping captures the tenuous circle of life. Hushpuppy later watches raptly as an alligator is gutted, battered, and fried to serve. The film’s photography captures the luminous light of fireworks and twinkling lanterns at night that additionally create a childish magic.
Zeitlin chooses to focus on the beauty rather than the misery, and the images serve to distract from the constant poverty. He uses childlike folklore to create a unique and satisfying examination of a despairing chaotic situation. The strong score of violins and resounding drums pump the film with courage and echo the strength of Hushpuppy. Her story is timeless, triumphant, and remarkable to behold on screen.
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