Having spent much of the last few days debating the merits of Steven Spielberg’s oeuvre, I have, of course, thought about that director’s much-discussed trope of young heroes lacking one or both parents. I personally don’t think Spielberg has much of interest to say about the subject. Beasts of the Southern Wild, by contrast, the standout movie from this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is about a young girl without a mother coming to terms with the mortality of her father. On this foundation, director Benh Zeitlin creates a mighty edifice—a sensational and swirling dark fantasy, and a bleak, apocalyptic vision. (I saw it in competition last week at the fest’s Egyptian Theater; Saturday night it won both the grand jury prize and the award for excellence in cinematography.)
Beasts of the Southern Wild is set in an area in the delta of southern Louisiana called the Bathtub; in the film’s conception, it is outside the levee system, and therefore outside of society—and perhaps outside of time as well. The characters live there in a squalor only marginally separated from the pigs, dogs, and chickens that surround them. They refuse to leave, even in the face of obliteration, on principles obvious to them if not to us.
Our hero is a child named Hush Puppy, whose gender is unclear through most of the film. As the narrative focuses we see the world through her helpless and then not-so-helpless psyche. She then confronts one mini-apocalypse after another. The heavens crack, the Flood comes; invaders arrive, giant boars stampede; the world, in one way or another, ends again and again. These concussive, unforgettable scenes are leavened with quieter, coarser, and fantastical ones. We see the survivors of a flood piece their society back together. Small children band together to go in search of something that everyone has and everyone loses.
The film is sympathetic to the characters, but sees their psychoses plainly and does not romanticize them. Indeed, those early images of different species of animals rooting together in the muck is not flattering to the human characters we soon meet. On the other hand, as the film goes on and we see the genuine, if idiosyncratic, forms of bravery, compassion and fortitude among them, we come at least to recognize their better sides.
The girl, played by Quvenzhané Wallis, burns her presence into the screen. Her face can be positively feral one minute, then older and wiser than her years the next. Her rampant emotions and nuanced facial control in virtually every scene—there are few that she is not in—seem to me an extraordinary work of art. Her father, played by Dwight Henry, evokes humanity and, finally, nobility playing a man whose degraded circumstances would seem to have left no trace of either.
And I still haven’t captured the myriad things this sprawling movie is about: families, communities, the collapse of both. The urge to make art, going back to cave drawings. It’s about climate change and the way civilizations end. It’s about the most wholesome whorehouse in the world and that weird line between society and not-society. And did I mention the giant boars? They herald apocalypse, surely, but also a single death, which is an apocalypse in itself. They run, unimpeded, until they confront an immovable object. That scene you will not forget. It’s hard to watch Beasts without crying, and I teared up again when the impossibly young Wallis took the stage after the screening, antic and sparring with her fellow moviemakers.