If any young filmmaker deserves to be on a “rising stars” list it’s most assuredly Benh Zeitlin, director of this year’s Sundance favorite Beasts of the Southern Wild. The film was written by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar based on Alibar’s one-act stage play Juicy and Delicious. It’s a film with a very literary structure and a style that is reminiscent of Terrence Malick circa Days of Heaven.
Quvenzhané Wallis stars as Hushpuppy, a six year old resident of an island community known as The Bathtub. Hushpuppy lives in a pair of trailer bodies raised off the ground with her dying father Wink (Dwight Henry). To make matters worse, The Bathtub is located south of New Orleans’ levees, which proves near fatal when a storm (meant to parallel Hurricane Katrina) comes and washes the community out.
At the same time, a chunk of the Antarctic ice shelf, which encases a herd of massive Aurochs, collapses into the ocean and floats north to the Louisiana shore. The film follows the Aurochs’ migration and draws parallels to Hushpuppy trying to survive in her washed out environment. Much of the film’s beauty comes from the characters’ will to survive, but also from their continuance of life as if nothing were amiss. But that’s what the film is at its core: a celebration of life.
Much like Mallick’s Days of Heaven, Beasts of the Southern Wild is narrated by a child who, while at times naïve, has a strangely intuitive perspective of how the world works. Hushpuppy continually reflects on how things fit together, musing that, “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts – even the smallest piece – the entire universe will get busted.” It’s this line that proves how perfect the choice was to tell the story from a child’s point of view.
Of course the film has its share of melodrama, whether it be the blood disease that slowly eats away at Wink’s body, or Hushpuppy’s belief that she’ll find her mother if she can get to the blinking light on the horizon. And then there’s the climax, which is so stunning, so imaginatively powerful, that time seems to stand still, and the world almost falls back into place, fixed.
To say that Beasts of the Southern Wild is the best film of the year might be an understatement. Multiple viewer perspectives will say it’s arguable, but argument or not this film still finishes at the top. Fans of Terrence Mallick will rejoice to have another poet in the cinematic field, and rightly so, for if there’s anything modern American productions lack, it’s beauty that reaches beyond the eyes and brightens the mind.