Beasts of the Southern Wild: The Sundance Sensation Wins Cheers at Cannes

Artful and magical, this debut feature by Benh Zeitlin is the first film of Cannes 2012 that comes within hailing distance of masterpiece

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The soggy patch of Delta Louisiana called The Bathtub is home to all manner of untamed marvels: crocodiles and boars, greenery and swarming green flies, a hardy band of humans who know it’s dangerous to live there and unacceptable to leave. But no creature is more entrancing than the precocious, poetic Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis). Living in a shack on stilts with her willful, ailing father Wink (Dwight Henry), she cooks her own meals and tends lovingly to the birds, dog and hog in her care. She hears them talk to her: “Most of the time they say, ‘I’m hungry’ or ‘I gotta poop,’ but sometimes they speak in code.” Hushpuppy is six, and ageless — a wise wild child who looks like an angel and speaks like a Sybil.

The girl’s teacher speaks clearly enough when she tells her charges, “The river’s gonna rise, and there ain’t gonna be no Bathtub, just a whole bunch of water,” and predicts the apocalyptic arrival of aurochs, an extinct species of cattle. Hushpuppy knows danger and tragedy: her daddy whacks her when angered, and her mother just “swam away,” to death or the mainland. (But mama speaks to the girl as well, from a chair in the kitchen.) If her father has taught her anything, it’s resilience, and no mere hurricane is going to make them extinct. “Me and my daddy gonna stay right here,” Hushpuppy promises. “We’s what the earth is from.” Sharing the child’s defiant faith, the citizens of Bathtub throw a party — food and fireworks and music to scare away Satan or Katrina. Through the revelers, Hushpuppy runs joyously toward us, holding a sparkler in each hand. The furious fiddling climaxes, and a title flashes on the screen: Beasts of the Southern Wild.

(SEE: The trailer for Beasts of the Southern Wild)

Most Cannes audiences reward the official films here with grateful or tepid applause. The crowd at Benh Zietlin’s debut feature seemed ready to cheer the opening title. And no wonder. Or rather, many wonders. The sensation of this year’s Sundance Festival, where it won the top award for dramatic (fiction) film and for cinematography, Beasts is the odds-on favorite to take the Caméra d’Or prize for best Cannes first feature. Expect more hosannas when the movie opens in the U.S. June 27.

As animals and a lost mother talk to Hushpuppy, so this bewitching film speaks in words and images of a clarity and vision nearly unique in today’s independent cinema. The movie’s antecedents are more distant: one detects the Audubon intensity of Terrence Malick’s early films, the multiracial tenderness of David Gordon Green’s George Washington, the family conflicts of Kasi Lemmons’ Eve’s Bayou and, further back, Robert Flaherty’s 1948 Louisiana Story, the proto-indie tale of a Cajun boy whose life is upended by the construction of a nearby oil rig.

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There’s a refinery across the levee from Bathtub too, but Hushpuppy’s land is far from what Mainlanders would call civilization; the place could be in Brazil or aboriginal Australia, and in any period over the past hundred years. We’re in the region of fable, as related in Lucy Alibar’s one-act play Juicy and Delicious, which Alibar describes as “a bluegrass musical about sex and Southern food” and which she and Zeitlin freely adapted into this film. (Hushpuppy and Wilk don’t exist in the original.)

A movie not of propulsive story power but of atmospheric vignettes, Beasts navigates its narrative with a child’s intense and wandering attention. A storm swats The Bathtub; after it subsides, Wink and his daughter survey the wreckage in a boat made from an inverted car chassis. The authorities try to evacuate the locals, and they resist. Hushpuppy and some other children are transported onto a floating bordello, And yes, the aurochs make an appearance to a brave little girl who can stare up at one of these tusked, snorting giants and declare, “You’re my friend, kind of.”

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Mostly, it’s about Hushpuppy’s quest to create a family out of a rough father, an absent mother, a backyard menagerie and her boundless imagination. Mama is a bittersweet memory for the girl and Wink. (“Daddy said that Mom was so hot, she walked into the kitchen and didn’t even have to put on the stove.”) His flagrant temper is no match for his daughter’s rhetorical fury. (“I hope you die! And when you die I’ll go to your grave and eat a birthday cake by myself.”) Wink, wandering across the property in a hospital gown, is indeed close to death, a status for which the ever-practical Hushpuppy has contingency plans. (“If my daddy don’t get home soon, it’s gonna be time for me to start eating my pets.”)

The girl may not realize her own emotional and physical prowess. When the exasperated Wink slaps her, she punches him in the chest — a good thump— and he falls over. He’s back in the hospital, where Hushpuppy visits him and notices the beds full of patients attached to feeding tubes. (“When an animal gets sick here,” she observes, “they plug it into the wall.”) Wink will leave her — the girl loses kin and makes new friends at Mach-2 speed — but Hushpuppy is a survivor and a chronicler, the Odysseus and Homer of her own seafaring epic. At the end, she says, “I’m recordin’ my story for the scientists of the future. In a million years, when kids go to school, they gonna know: Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub.”

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One astonishment of this mature and magical film is that it is the first feature for Zeitlin, Alibar, cinematographer Ben Richardson, co-editor Crockett Doob and composer Dan Romer. (The New Orleans filmmaking collective calls itself Court 13, after the abandoned squash court that became its headquarters.) Three-and-a-half years in the gestation, Beasts of the Southern Wild evolved through rewrites, Sundance labs and on-the-set improv, but mostly through casting. More than 3,500 children were auditioned for the Hushpuppy role, conceived as aged 10 to 15. Then the five-year-old Wallis showed up and, Zeitlin recalled, he was “looking at a warrior. It’s not at all who the character was, and it’s not at all who you were imagining, but it’s so clear that the spirit [of Wallis] is exactly the spirit of the movie.”

A thousand obstacles face any film team, veteran or virgin, and the challenges increase when the stars are non-actors. As Wink, a role that could stumble into brutality, Henry locates pain and nuance, and a love for a willful child he could have abandoned. But Wallis is the find here. A lovely, wiry thing, she seems to live through each of Hushpuppy’s moods, fears and visions. In what is already proving a strong year for female roles (Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone, Kara Hayward in Moonrise Kingdom, Margarete Tiesel in Paradise: Love), Wallis would be a potent contender for Cannes’ Best Actress award…

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If only her performance were eligible. Beasts was relegated to the sidebar program called Un Certain Regard, though its artistic accomplishment is higher than that of any film we’ve seen so far. At Cannes in 1989, another first feature and Sundance prizewinner, Steve Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape, copped the Palme d’Or. Lately, though, few debut American indies have played in the Competition. (Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire, an Oscar winner with a similar pedigree as Beasts, was also demoted to Un Certain Regard.) The Cannes programmers prefer a main slate heavy on venerable auteurs, and the Palme d’Or is often a lifetime achievement award. No newcomers, thank you.

So Beasts of the Southern Wild was deprived its deserving shot at the Palme d’Or. But there is life after Cannes, and a hauntingly human experience awaiting Stateside audiences. Mark down the date: June 27. That’s when American moviegoers will see this perfect storm of a film, and the tiny force of nature that is Quvenzhané Wallis.