You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Benh Zeitlin's stunning debut finds its dandelion-haired heroine fighting rising tides and fantastic creatures in a mythic battle against modernity.

Hushpuppy - Quvenzhane Wallis
Wink - Dwight Henry
Jean Battiste - Levy Easterly
Walrus - Lowell Landes
Little Jo - Pamela Harper
Miss Bathsheeba - Gina Montana
Sticks - Nicholas Clark
The Cook - Jovan Hathaway

At home in the Bathtub, a marshy swampland off the coast of southern Louisiana, 6-year-old Hushpuppy lives by a simple code: “When you’re small, you gotta fix what you can.” It’s a fitting mantra for Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” a stunning debut that finds its dandelion-haired heroine fighting rising tides and fantastic creatures in a mythic battle against modernity. Despite limited means, Zeitlin and his Court 13 collective conjure an expansive world in which to set this richly textured bayou pastoral, yielding an emotionally wrenching if somewhat meandering parable likely to register strongest among critics and cineastes.

Adapted from co-writer Lucy Alibar’s play “Juicy and Delicious,” the film asserts its individuality even as it finds its place within a broader artistic tradition, evoking everything from literature (“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”) to painting (Theodore Gericault’s “The Raft of the Medusa”). Perhaps the most obvious cinematic comparison will be to the early work of Terrence Malick, given “Wild’s” poetic voiceover and the way Zeitlin splits his attention between the film’s natural surroundings and the narrative at hand. More influential still is Robert Flaherty’s “Louisiana Story,” in which a young Cajun boy observes oil drillers commandeering the canals near his home. Half a century after Flaherty’s eco-conscious statement, unsightly refineries flank the coast, leaving a string of small islands vulnerable to flooding.

It is this zone that constitutes the Bathtub, an almost primordial wilderness cut off from the rest of Louisiana by a long wall of levees. Here, an unapologetically uncivilized crowd of humans live alongside the animals that sustain them, blissfully disconnected from their resource-burning neighbors to the north. When judgment comes in the form of rising tides and vengeful beasts, however, this mystical realm independent of government and law will be the first to feel the consequences.

The children face the greatest danger. Among them, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis, possessed of incredible poise and almost feral intensity) already fends reasonably well for herself, sharing a sort of treehouse trailer with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), who hasn’t been the same since Hushpuppy’s mom “swam away” years earlier. Wink can be cruel at times, as when he hits Hushpuppy after her attempt to prepare her own dinner sends part of their ramshackle home up in flames, but his principal concern is for the girl’s safety. Once the rains come, he becomes her fierce protector, a dynamic that radically differentiates the film from others that see only cruelty and abuse in black families, and one that establishes the emotional backbone for the picture.

Every culture has its flood myth, and with this project, Zeitlin and Alibar create a new American fable all the more potent in the wake of Katrina (a natural disaster that also factored prominently into Zeitlin’s 2008 short film, “Glory at Sea”). But the imagery here — including a raft fashioned from an empty truck bed — is radically different from the post-hurricane news footage by which Americans witnessed so many lives destroyed and neighborhoods left underwater. These outcasts, with their grizzled faces and missing teeth, are prepared for the flood, building floating houses on which they intend to wait until the tide recedes and staging valiant attacks against the manmade levees.

Since the flood represents an abstract sort of menace, the film introduces yet another threat in the form of giant aurochs, prehistoric boar-like creatures with sharp tusks and carnivorous appetites released from their Ice Age prison by eroding glaciers. Armed with collaborator Ray Tintori’s atmospheric footage of these spectacular beasts, Zeitlin repeatedly cuts back to the aurochs’ advance, adding a much-needed layer of tension to a story that otherwise tends to drift from the father-daughter relationship at its core.

Another motif — namely, the restless handheld camerawork that characterizes the film’s painterly compositions — underlines the instability of Hushpuppy’s existence, while a resonant score lends real dignity to her odyssey. Mass media have gone a long way to standardize our idea of what a house or community should look like, yet Zeitlin suggests a radical alternative based on celebration of life and coexistence with nature, even if it means living in shacks cobbled together from other people’s trash. The magic of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” comes in marrying the specifics of this odd regional enclave with a familiar allegorical form. Like a tattoo imprinted on the back of your head, the film’s message has always been with us; we just needed someone else’s eyes to see it.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Production: A Cinereach presentation of a Cinereach and Court 13 production in association with Journeyman Pictures. (International sales: E1, Toronto.) Produced by Michael Gottwald, Dan Janvey, Josh Penn. Executive producers, Philipp Engelhorn, Paul Mezey, Michael Raisler. Co-producers, Matthew Parker, Chris Carroll. Directed by Benh Zeitlin. Screenplay, Lucy Alibar, Zeitlin, based on the stage play "Juicy and Delicious" by Alibar.

Crew: Camera (color, Super 16mm/HD), Ben Richardson; editors, Crocket Doob, Affonso Goncalves; music, Dan Romer, Zeitlin; costume designer, Stephani Lewis; special effects unit director, Ray Tintori; special effects producer, Lucas Joaquin; associate producers, Casey Coleman, Annie Evelyn, Nathan Harrison, John Williams. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 20, 2012. Running time: 93 MIN.

Cast: Hushpuppy - Quvenzhane Wallis
Wink - Dwight Henry
Jean Battiste - Levy Easterly
Walrus - Lowell Landes
Little Jo - Pamela Harper
Miss Bathsheeba - Gina Montana
Sticks - Nicholas Clark
The Cook - Jovan Hathaway

More Scene

  • DF-10956_R – Gwilym Lee (Brian May) and

    'Bohemian Rhapsody' Producer Confirms Bryan Singer's Reason for Leaving, Says 'No One' Was Attached to Play Mercury

    “Bohemian Rhapsody” producer Graham King provided insight into some of the events surrounding the Golden Globe-winning film Saturday at the Producers Guild Awards Nominees Breakfast, including director Bryan Singer’s departure from the film partway through production. “It’s an unfortunate situation, with like 16, 17 days to go and Bryan Singer just had some issues, his [...]

  • Mj Rodriguez, Nico Santos to Announce

    Mj Rodriguez, Nico Santos to Announce GLAAD Media Award Nominations

    Mj Rodriguez and Nico Santos are set to announce the nominees for the 30th annual GLAAD Media Awards. The “Pose” star and “Crazy Rich Asians” funny man will make the announcement during a live-stream hosted by AT&T and from the AT&T Hello Lounge at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday, Jan. 25. More Reviews TV Review: 'Russian [...]

  • Emile Hirsch, Matt SmileyEmile Hirsch hosts

    Emile Hirsch Hosts Smiley Face Art Opening at Mondrian Hotel

    Despite the rain on Wednesday night in West Hollywood, there were plenty of smiles inside the Mondrian hotel thanks to artist Matt Smiley‘s Refresh exhibition. Not only is Smiley his real last name, but several of his paintings and other pieces in the exhibit feature smiley faces. More Reviews TV Review: 'Russian Doll' TV Review: [...]

  • Randall Park, left, and Constance Wu

    Constance Wu Wants Her 'Fresh Off the Boat' Co-Star Randall Park to Host the Oscars

    While the Academy may have decided to go hostless for this year’s Oscars, that doesn’t mean the rest of Hollywood has stopped thinking about who would be a good choice for the emceeing gig. Former host Whoopi Goldberg recently suggested Ken Jeong. More Reviews TV Review: 'Russian Doll' TV Review: 'Black Earth Rising' Jeong said, [...]

  • 'Schitt's Creek' Stars Reveal Dream Guest

    'Schitt's Creek' Cast Reveals Dream Guest Stars: Oprah, Beyonce and ...

    “Schitt’s Creek” has big dreams. Dan Levy, who stars as David on the series, says his wish list of guest stars includes Oprah, Beyonce, Mariah Carey and Gwyneth Paltrow. “All for different reasons, none of whom we’ll get,” he cracked at the Critics’ Choice Awards. More Reviews TV Review: 'Russian Doll' TV Review: 'Black Earth [...]

  • Barbra Streisand and Gisele Bundchen

    Barbra Streisand and Gisele Bündchen to Be Honored at UCLA Science Gala

    Science can be very glamorous. It certainly will be during Oscar week on Feb. 21 when the UCLA Institute of the Environment & Sustainability (IoES) honors Barbra Streisand and Gisele Bündchen for environmental activism at its annual Hollywood for Science Gala. More Reviews TV Review: 'Russian Doll' TV Review: 'Black Earth Rising' “When I moved [...]

  • Don Cheadle and Andrew Rannells Black

    Don Cheadle, Andrew Rannells Talk Snorting 'Coke' on 'Black Monday'

    “Black Monday” show creators David Caspe and Jordan Cahen divulged an intriguing detail to come later in the first season of the new Showtime comedy at its world premiere, held at the Theatre at Ace Hotel on Monday night in Los Angeles. “The fourth or fifth episode opens with a sexual harassment seminar, which very well [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content