Cannes Review: ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ Is a Magical, Wonderful Treasure

By  · Published on May 27th, 2012

Cannes’ secondary competition – Un Certain Regard – offers attendees the opportunity to see innovative or intriguing projects, deemed of significance by the programme schedulers, and if there is any film in the selection which fits the bill perfectly, it is Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. As Kevin Kelly stated in his own review of the film, it changes the way you see movies, and Zeitlin’s first feature arrived at the festival buoyed by similarly positive reviews at Sundance.

The film takes place in the Bathtub, a Southern American area outside of a government enforced levee where a community of resistant, and spirited residents live in shacks in the ominous shadow cast by global warming. Our hero is Hush Puppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), an extraordinary six year old girl who lives next door to her father Wink (Dwight Henry), living day to day on the bayou, among a colourful cascade of carnival characters, but haunted both by the ghost of her absent mother and the threat of impending ecological doom. The narrative is driven by two flashpoint events: first Wink disappears, to return days later in a hospital gown and then a raging storm floods the Bathtub, destroying the communities homes and leaving only a small group of survivors to rebuild.

It is impossible to resist the post-Katrina message, even though the film resists the temptation to geographically sign-post anything, and unfortunately the inter-cut shots of melting ice-caps are the only moment of excess, a single wrongly placed step in an otherwise hugely impressive film.

And equally difficult to resist is the explicitly American feel of the film, which might have tempted some to believe that it wouldn’t travel quite so well outside of the States, but for all of the bayou-born idiosyncracies and irresistible carnival spirit the fundamentals are so strong, and Zeitlin’s artistic agenda so successful that those who get to see it will be universally engaged regardless of where they’re from. Its enduring currency is of the unexpected: dazzling and thrilling chiefly because it is so unlike everything else audiences will have already experienced, but still packing in conventionally entertaining elements to suggest a courageous commercial release might reap rewards.

Stylistically, Zeitlin soaks his film with a delightfully effective aesthetic, suggesting poetry and magic even in the darker scenes, and pushing the dream-like narrative elements that make this little wonder something otherworldly and beautiful. Mythical beasts and feverish carnival-like sequences break up the realist moments, suggesting that the story’s blood runs rich with magic.

For all of the film’s aspirations of magic realism and mystique, it is when focus concentrates most on simple human melodrama that it is most successful. Buoyed by excellent performances by Henry and Wallis – astonishing considering their almost total lack of experience – the portrait of Hushpuppy and Wink’s relationship is tender and occasionally agonizing as they attempt to cope with the spectre of Hushpuppy’s mother’s flight, the destructive influence of outside agencies trying to save the community from themselves and the boundary of their difficult chemistry. That Zetilin can invest that story with a coming of age tale as well – told in part through Hushpuppy’s attempt to find her mother – shows a remarkable eye for balance.

So too does the director’s use of those magic realist elements, which serve not to deflect from the grim realism of the story, but to advance its pronounced carnival spirit, as well as offering a reminder that this deeply adult story is being told through the eyes and experiences of a six year old. So while her visions of marauding pre-historic beasts suggest a metaphorical prophecy of impending disaster (both personal and ecological), they also say something fundamental and authentic about her immature imagination.

The film’s score is exceptional, a heady mix of Bluesy upbeat numbers that never over-express the story’s more depressed and depressing aspects, instead energizing sequences while stamping some more geographic identity onto the story. It is a perfectly suited dream-like score that helps the film stick in the memory, and the fact that Zeitlin was involved heavily in its production suggests the film-maker has a considerable number of strings to his already impressive bow.

Even without that knowledge, Beasts of the Southern Wild is an incredible debut film, overwhelming, engaging, beautifully entertaining, and it deserves to be shared.

When a film garners a vociferous response from any audience in Cannes it’s usually a strong indication of quality – especially when the cast and director aren’t there to enjoy the occasional bouts of sycophancy that can and do happen – and it is for good reason that Beasts of the Southern Wild will go down as the film I want to share most with fellow film-fans long after the closing ceremony has ended.

The upside: Undoubtedly, one of the most emotionally affecting dramas of recent years.

The downside: The global warming propaganda is a little too blatant for such an otherwise artfully crafted film.

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