True originals are hard to come by in cinema, but this heart-on-sleeve, deeply eccentric tale of life, love and loss in the flood waters of New Orleans truly merits the label. First-time feature filmmaker Benh Zeitlin has adapted a one-act play by fellow American Lucy Alibar into a dreamy but strikingly immediate and frayed-at-the-edges, child’s-eye view of life on the margins of America.
The child is six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a tomboyish girl who lives with her erratic dad, Wink (Dwight Henry), in a remote and wild bayou region of Louisiana – a ramshackle, watery trailer community of hard-living waifs and strays. Humans live cheek by jowl with other animals, and happily kill, cook and crunch them when the time arises.
Hushpuppy’s fears of the rising waters and her confused feelings about her parents (her dad is ill, her mum is dead, although she appears as a spirit) mean that she – and so we – slips into a world of imagination that involves strange, menacing prehistoric beasts and melting ice caps. This is a very magical and musical sort of social realism – as if Ken Loach’s ‘Kes’ was given a rewrite by Lewis Carroll.
If that still sounds gritty and grim, much of ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ consists of bursts of pure, naked emotion, and it cartwheels along at a cracking pace. It’s fleshy and mucky (and shot on grainy 16mm), but it’s also musical and colourful, with Hushpuppy’s voiceover leading us playfully and innocently through the story and scenes of fireworks and dancing.
There are hints that the story, with its levees, heavy weather, flooding and refugee camp is taking place at the time of Hurricane Katrina, but little about it is so concrete. This is a fairytale in which we regularly slip out of the real world and into another one inside an over-imaginative young child’s head. And what a crazy, fun, circus-like world that is, full of poetry and pain.