Last Friday night Beasts of the Southern Wild made a noise in Leicester Square, coming down the red carpet at the London Film Festival after being the surprise hit at both Sundance and Cannes this year. It’s a gritty yet whimsical look at life on the banks of the Louisiana bayou where the dirt poor (mostly black) community live with the constant threat of flooding.
It’s a weird, watery world viewed through the eyes of a six-year-old girl known as Hushpuppy (the totally captivating newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis) whose tomboyish ‘tude comes from living under the sole care of her father Wink (Dwight Henry), a man bent over by the weight of the world. Wink’s health is in decline and he’s also hell-bent on making sure his kid will survive without him.
Inevitably, a raging storm blows in one night, forcing them out of their ramshackle home and they’re set adrift on a raft, headed out through the marshland with all their worldly possessions (which don’t amount to much). It’s a sight that evokes the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn except that these aren’t carefree lazy days on the water – they are filled with uncertainty and fear.
Oh, and white people are a minority group on the Louisiana floodplain…
Even so, Hushpuppy believes that nature is her friend, bonding with it through all the little critters – which, she says, talk to her in code – and imagining the always imminent danger as a herd of stampeding aurochs (a type of ancient buffalo). She has an indomitable spirit and a philosophical outlook, which seems a fitting reflection of those who live on the tipping edge of this Southern State.
Rookie director Benh Zeitlin has a background in animation and conjures fantastical, magical imagery to get inside Hushpuppy’s head. But this rendering of Mother Nature isn’t rosy-hued and filled with tweeting birds and chirruping grasshoppers – it is brutal and eerie. It’s Hushpuppy who brings the sunshine and warmth, and the tempestuous (but obviously loving) relationship with her father.
Dwight Henry, who in that role switches between terrifying and tender, drew on his own experience as a New Orleans native driven out of the seventh ward in 2005. He had no acting experience before Zeitlin spotted him serving donuts at his bakery near the production office. That he was able to draw out such a performance – and from an untested five-year-old, too – just goes to show that the 29-year-old isn’t only a gifted visual artist but a truly sensitive storyteller as well.
The locals may have balked at an outsider coming to town to give his take on the tragedy that has befallen the bayou, but Zeitlin’s approach feels true to the place, and given that his film is aimed primarily at children, it’s not patronising in the slightest. Zeitlin has somehow managed to deliver a realistic fantasy and that puts him out on the edge, where many are afraid to venture.
Read Radio Times film editor Andrew Collins' five star review of Beasts of the Southern Wild here.