Directorial debuts can be hit-and-miss but Benh Zeitlin’s spellbinding Beasts of the Southern Wild demonstrates a natural flair and originality rare amongst even the most established of directors. Beasts of the Southern Wild unfolds like a fairytale, in which the heroine Hushpuppy (played by the outstanding Quvenzhané Wallis), a six-year-old girl living with her father in an impoverished Cajun community known as the ‘Bathtub’, faces danger, tragedy and a treacherous journey of self-discovery.
Ravaged by relentless floods and isolated from mainstream society by a monumental levee, the inhabitants of the Bathtub reject government interference and the alien ‘dry world’. But as the flood waters rise and Hushpuppy’s father’s health deteriorates, the world she knows is torn apart and she begins to imagine that the Bathtub is under attack from mythical monsters tracing a path of destruction through her community.
The film maintains a delicate line between fantasy, folklore and cruel reality, juxtaposing the arbitrary destruction of nature with moments of poetry between Hushpuppy and her father Wink. On one level, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a study of desperate poverty the inevitable decline of a rich culture and social exclusion – indeed the parallels with the social displacement seen during hurricane Katrina are powerfully evoked. But at the same time, Hushpuppy, Wink and their neighbours populate an enchanting alternate universe of magic and folklore so removed from mainstream America that Beasts of the Southern Wild is elevated far beyond preachy social commentary.
Zeitlin’s film is a potent work of pure, child-like, imagination and it has already garnered festival praise at Sundance and the Camera d’Or at Cannes for its breathtaking cinematography. Its cast of largely untrained, non-professional actors (which, incidentally is also the reason it wasn’t eligible for the Screen Actors Guild awards) also lends the film a real sense of raw authenticity. This is definitely one to watch: prepare to be moved and inspired by this unique masterpiece.