Director: Benh Zeitlin
Cast: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry
Watch Beasts of the Southern Wild online in the UK: iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece, the whole universe will get busted.
That’s Hushpuppy’s (Wallis) take on the world. And what a wonderful world it is: floods of grey and shacks of brown, a bayou, adrift, beaten by tropical storms off the coast of Louisiana.
Hushpuppy’s dad, Wick (Henry), realises the danger they’re in after the village is severely flooded – not to mention the constant threat of eviction. But Beasts of the Southern busies itself with childlike imagination rather than hard-hitting truth. The resulting fairytale bewitches you completely.
It helps that Quvenzhané Wallis is utterly convincing as the resilient five year old. Halfway through, in a rare confrontation with the mainlanders, the fierce Hushpuppy winds up with a group of other kids in a clean blue dress. It’s only then that you realise she’s a girl.
“My one job in this life is to keep you alive,” her devoted dad tells her. He’s equally genuine, a first-time actor who switches from sickly to sweet – and then flies off the handle altogether. It’s a little hard to sympathise with such a blatantly terrible father, let alone the backward villagers who shun medical assistance for their pot-and-pan lifestyle, but director Benh Zeitlin (amazingly, another debut) immerses us completely in Hushpuppy’s perspective.
From fireworks to fireflies, Zeitlin paints the production with a colourful brush, exploding from the marsh into bouts of pure fantasy. Hushpuppy knows something bad is coming, but we never see it literally. Instead, we watch, jaws dropped, as gigantic extinct beasts charge through the landscape, trampling houses and chasing humans. It’s a scribbled version of the end of the world: the apocalypse drawn with crayons.
Do these imaginary mammoths represent nature itself? Life’s determination to survive? Are they just another endangered group living on the edge of the earth?
The film’s lyrical images unfold in a gorgeous stream that challenges you not to ask questions, but to simply embrace one child’s view of the universe. Magical realism writ large, Beasts of the Southern is full of thousands of tiny pieces – and everything fits together just right.