Beasts of the Southern Wild 
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry
Runtime: 91 minutes
Down at the very bottom of Lousiana is a place I had no idea existed. Deep in the Delta, there are communities and villages that gradually dissipate with every storm. Populations have dwindled as their land slowly washes away, yet so many of them refuse to leave. Even with governmental orders to evacuate, the citizens opt to stay and attempt to wait out the storm. They are a proud, if not stubborn, bunch.
Beasts of the Southern Wild takes place in a similar location identified as “The Bathtub”, a washed-out bayou community south of the levee. The Bathtub has a bit of a mystical feel to it — its denizens live in boarded-up shacks with all sorts of animals running around outside. They live by their own set of rules and make do with what’s available nearby.
The film, which has been tearing up the festival scene (winner of the Grand Jury prize at Sundance and the Camera d’Or at Cannes), shows this world from a six-year-old girl’s perspective. This girl, nicknamed Hushpuppy (played by Quvenzhane Wallis), lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry), an alcoholic but caring man who is suffering from a serious illness. He is trying to hide his health problems from Hushpuppy, but this young lady is wise beyond her years. She knows something is wrong, and she begins bracing herself for the inevitable.
Hushpuppy has a wild and vivid imagination, as most children her age do, and she has visions of mythical beasts known as Aurochs (a sort of boar/cow hybrid). She also talks to a chair, imagining her long-lost mother is sitting there. While her father still helps take care of her, Hushpuppy does a lot on her own, even cooking her own meals and taking care of her own “house” (essentially a small shack).
As the film follows Hushpuppy, so does the camera. Director Benh Zeitlin, in his full-length debut, opts to keep the camera at her viewpoint so it feels like we are seeing exactly what she sees. I love this idea, but there were moments of unnecessary shaky cam, particularly in the beginning of the film. The shakiness tamed a bit over time, but it felt a bit too exuberant at first.
Regardless, Zeitlin and his cinematographer Ben Richardson succeeded in creating a wild, vivid world that is entirely engrossing. I felt like I was right there in the bayou, and I was introduced to a community unlike any I had ever seen. The fact that these guys were able to create such an amazing set with a budget of $1-2 million is astonishing.
In a stroke of pure genius (likely aided by the low budget), Zeitlin opted to go with a cast of Louisiana locals to star in the film. In a Q&A session I was honored to see first hand, the director stated that he went through over 3,000 auditions for the role of Hushpuppy before deciding on newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis. I couldn’t imagine anyone else in this role. Miss Wallis is so endearing in this role with a great deal of personality — she has a bright future in this business if she so desires.
The story behind the casting of Wink is an amusing one. Once again, Zeitlin went through countless auditions but just couldn’t find the right guy for the part. While taking breaks from the casting process, the crew would go across the street to a bakery, which just so happened to be owned by Dwight Henry. Zeitlin instantly became a fan of Henry’s personality and essentially begged him to try out for the part. Henry kept dodging the idea — he was, after all, a full-time business owner — but they finally got through to him. Despite having to work around his odd business hours (he worked from 11pm-10am), Zeitlin and company found their man, and as Mr. Henry stated, “the rest is history.”
It’s no wonder that Beasts of the Southern Wild has been getting all sorts of critical acclaim. This is a film with some serious lasting power, one that shows life in a Katrina-like world but also wisely avoids getting into any political matters. From the perspective of Hushpuppy, this almost feels like a folk tale, one that people will not soon forget.
It still blows my mind that this is Zeitlin’s first film (not to mention the first for much of the cast and crew as well). The movie isn’t perfect — I wish the shaky cam were alleviated a bit, and the script does run errant in the final act — but I am still in awe at the cajun world that I was able to experience for 90 minutes. Folks, pencil in June 27 on your calendar. Beasts of the Southern Wild will be unlike any film you have seen.