New Orleans and the wider gulf coast of Louisiana have been forced to endure more than their fair share of disaster, grief and suffering since the terrible devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina.
The impact of the hurricane has been the foundation of numerous documentaries, including Spike Lee’s exhaustive When the Levees Broke and the superb TV series Treme.
The city was front and centre of Werner Herzog’s The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, while other films have used the area’s devastated locations as backdrops to the story they are telling, whether it be the moral decay that permeates the Brad Pitt-starring Killing Them Softly or the apocalypse in The Road.
However, none have found such beauty in decay as Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, a beguiling, magical fairytale that must count as one of the most striking directorial debuts of recent years.
The film follows Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a strong-willed six-year-old girl who lives with her ailing, hard-drinking fisherman father Wink (Dwight Henry). The two live hand-to-mouth in separate rickety shacks that look like they’re about to collapse, surrounded by a menagerie of animals.
They live in a tiny bayou community of eccentric souls called the ‘Bathtub’, so called because it has been cut off from the outside world by a levee, with the “dry world” as Hushpuppy calls it on the other side. Hushpuppy and the other children are taught by the charismatic Miss Bathsheba on how to survive in the face of impending global warming, a consequence of which, little do they realise, will be the release of the giant prehistoric boar-like Aurochs from the melting ice caps.
Miss Bathsheba points to her cave painting tattoos of the Aurochs, something that inspires Hushpuppy to draw her own images so that “in a million years, when kids go to school, they’re gonna know once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub”.
When a giant Katrina-style storm floods the Bathtub, the resilient Hushpuppy realises the universe as she knows it has been thrown off balance and she must do all she can, including searching out her mother, to save her dying father.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is as beloved to some as it is infuriating to others. Although entitled to hold their opinions, the naysayers are missing the point.
Any film featuring a child as the protaganist and narrated by that same youngster will instrinsically be equal parts illogical and fantastical. In the wrong hands, a film such as this can bury itself under an avalanche of too-cute whimsy, but Zeitlin admirably walks the tightrope and produces a gothic fairytale of real beauty.
The world of the Bathtub is so convincingly realised by Zeiltlin, you can almost smell the cajun spices and feel the water lapping under your feet. When you’re removed from it, as the characters are against their will by the authorities following the storm (evacuated to the ironically-titled Open Arms shelter), you feel as desperate to get back as they do.
Wallis is a force of nature as the headstrong, enchanting Hushpuppy, more adult than the grown-ups at times, in other moments a needy child who wants nothing more than to be held by her father, or mother if she can find her. You accept without reservation the father-daughter relationship she has with Henry, a non-professional actor who owned the bakery Zeitlin would use for breakfast while casting the film. Henry gives a raw, heart-breaking performance as the weakening Wink who loves his daugher dearly but struggles to find the proper words or deeds.
Credit must also be given to the wondrous score, heavily influenced by Michael Nyman and Philip Glass, which serves as another way into this magical kingdom.
Does everything work here? No; the whole side narrative involving the Aurochs feels like a step too far, while some of the characters are a little too eccentric for their own good.
However, Beasts of the Southern Wild remains a bewitching, poetic fable, a real one-off that, as Hushpuppy puts it is a “little piece of a big, big universe, and that makes things right”.