I’m a rebel. An iconoclast. A wooer of women. Someone who can get away with using the word “woo.” So when this Beasts of the Southern Wild film got top marks from critics across the country, and seduced Oscar pundits with its potential to crack the Best Picture category in the year of Lincoln, Les Misérables and my beloved Premium Rush… yeah, I balked. I sneered. I made a sandwich. I padded the beginning of my Blu-ray review so I didn’t have to come out and say that they were totally right about everything all along.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is so hypnotic that I am still convinced I may be a chicken. While surface elements of Benh Zeitlin’s film are familiar to art house enthusiasts – a complex world viewed from the eyes of an innocent child, a plot focused on class distinctions and a voice-over that sounds like a kissing cousin of Days of Heaven – the effect is altogether new and special. Beasts of the Southern Wild captures the self-absorption of childhood amidst the lens of natural catastrophe. The same bulletproof logic that makes you responsible for the ills of the world just by wishing them takes on a mythic quality when those feelings translate to a devastating flood that destroys your entire way of life.
Quvenzhané Wallis, whose name is just complicated enough that I will not be typing it again, stars as “Hushpuppy” – real name unknown, or worse, actually “Hushpuppy” – who lives on a small island off the coast of Louisana called “The Bathtub.” This ramshackle community lives off the land, the sea and the dilapidated remnants of whatever they can find, and for a time, it seems like an idyllic wonderland. Hushpuppy, along with her father Wink (Dwight Henry), feed their animals and party at will with their beloved community. One day, Wink disappears altogether, arriving home mysteriously in a blue hospital gown and medical bracelet. His attitude has changed, and the six-year-old girl can’t understand why. When a fire sets them at odds, she punches her father in the chest. Wink collapses, the polar ice caps melt, and a prehistoric race of Aurochs is loosed upon the land, destroying everything in their path.
Whether these events are directly connected, symbolic or a combination of the two is not the point of Beasts of the Southern Wild. The film draws no such distinctions. The film exists within that mystical realm of childhood daze, wherein imagination cannot be distinguished from reality because imagination fills in the spaces where reality makes no sense. Hushpuppy and Wink survive the mighty flood, reunite with some of their neighbors and attempt to flourish in their newly submerged kingdom, but when the salt water erodes the land, and the government arrives to relocate them altogether, a journey not unlike an epic fable, and not unlike a tiny tale of youth in transition, unfolds in the bayou.
The phrase “magical realism” comes to mind in Beasts of the Southern Wild, and rarely has the phrase felt more apt. There is a punishing honesty to Zeitlin’s film that keeps even the strangest moments from ever feeling like an escape, and a wonder to most trivial plot points that prevents the film from being anything but a dream. Such a balance is hard to capture, and Zeitlin never lets it slip from his fingers. Somehow, his cast and crew of artisans was reading along with every page of his screenplay, co-written by Lucy Alibar (based on her play, Juicy and Delicious), and picked up on this seemingly intangible vibe. Everyone making Beasts of the Southern Wild seems to have been making Beasts of the Southern Wild, and nothing else it could possibly have been.
The strange journey from concept to screen is illustrated in the Blu-ray’s special features, which are relatively sparse but fascinating, covering the film’s colloquial roots in bayou country and curious visual effects sequences, which seem all the more impressive when you discover how low-tech they really were. The film’s deleted scenes are accompanied by a running commentary by Zeitlin, who is eloquent about his storytelling intentions, so much so in fact that the lack of a proper commentary track feels like a minor heartbreak.
Rounding out the disc – which also contains a beautiful transfer of Ben Richardson’s photography, and a luscious soundscape foregrounding Dan Romer’s and Benh Zeitlin’s incredible score – is the short film Glory at Sea. The 25-minute short, like Beasts of the Southern Wild, explores the tragedy of a tsunami from the perspective of the survivors and, again like the feature film, takes on a magical quality as one man, possibly spit back from the afterworld, builds a boat to help reunite a community with their loved ones, who remain trapped at the bottom of the ocean. Glory at Sea is a blunt film by comparison, and not a great one, but it contains moments of filmmaking promise that Beasts of the Southern Wild surely keeps. The emotional finale to Glory at Sea smoothes the coarser edges of the screenplay and makes the film’s inclusion on this set a welcome one.
Beasts of the Southern Wild deserves to be seen, experienced and responded to in whatever way you see fit. Whether it wraps you up in its arms the way I was, or tosses you aside with its strange predilection for ethereality, I leave to fate. It may evoke memories of Terrence Malick, storybooks or even HBO’s “Treme,” but it is its own entity, fully formed and beautiful whether you like it or not. It’s one of the best and most fascinating films of the year.
Read CraveOnline's original review of Beasts of the Southern Wild