Beasts of the Southern Wild

ALEX MARTIN isn’t wild about this film but found it touching nonetheless.

Auroch Aurochs Bathtub bayou Beasts of the Southern Wild Behn Zeitlin Down by Law Hushpuppy Katrina Louisiana Lucy Alibar oscars Quvenzhané Wallis Wink

There are moments in Beasts of the Southern Wild that impute more about life in contemporary Louisiana than many post-Katrina documentaries have ever managed to hint at.

There are other moments, however, which are so cloying and conventional that you begin to suspect the film’s considerable virtues are those of an over-reading of an ordinary Disney-esque fable, rather than the results of considered artisanship. Ultimately, however, its charm is strong and comforting (and not every film can be Holy Motors).

Hushpuppy, a communally parented six-year-old girl, roams freely about a bayou called the Bathtub. The bayous are wetlands notorious for their fluctuating water levels – fluctuations that are exacerbated by an expensive levee built to protect an industrial refinement plant upriver from the Bathtub. Like a little Berlin Wall, the levee isolates those living in the bayou from the rest of the world.

The Bathtub is a place of brilliant idiosyncrasy, like a child’s mind – and it’s the world of Hushpuppy, played fantastically by Quvenzhané Wallis, that Behn Zeitlin’s direction has marvellously captured when he takes us around the Bathtub, fishing or cooking and often singing.  On gloriously grained 16mm, this film features some of the prettiest and most unusual shots of Louisiana since Jim Jarmusch’s masterpiece Down by Law.

It seems that everything I did not enjoy about the film is on display in the trailer. For example, the Aurochs are unnecessary and Beasts of the Southern Wild would not be recognizably different without them. Hushpuppy’s voice-overs and the dialogue elsewhere too often slip into a stuttered bayou Negro patois that reeks of disingenuity, if not actually of racism.

These problems, I suspect, originate with the writer Lucy Alibar who approaches life in the bayous like a tourist, with patronising conceptions of the “land of plenty” and its noble indigenes that have a mysterious connection to it and to the universe itself. But even if parts of the script are weak, the production is very strong and clever. And while the referencing of poverty and global warming do not really constitute themes, they at least serve to situate Hushpuppy’s narrative of the world within our own.

Any work of art is going to excite certain responses from its audience and if those responses are, for instance, questions, then what we call the theme must be the subject uniting those questions. Happily, Beasts of the Southern Wild does raise questions and its theme is a certain kind of innocence; it is Hushpuppy’s innocence in failing to understand her father’s responsibility for her, for example, and it is that of her community when faced with mandatory evacuation.

This, then, is a consciously independent film with a very convincing non-professional cast, helmed by an incredibly charismatic child actor in Quvenzhané Wallis (already leading polls to become the youngest ever nominee for The Oscars’ Best Actress).  It is a touching film – and though it may not still be being watched in fifty years time, it will certainly continue to bring in viewers over the next few weeks.

They don’t cry in the Bathtub, but I might have sniffed a little bit.