Director Benh Zeitlin takes on a monstrous project for his new film, tackling the Hurricane Katrina tragedy in a unique and magical way
It’s not often I leave the cinema looking like I’ve been punched in the face, but on my way out of Beasts of the Southern Wild last week this was most definitely the case. No, I didn’t trip in the darkness and smash my face into a crushed velvet chair – this is just one film I challenge any man, or indeed beast, to get through without shedding a tear.
The story is set in the low-lying Bayou territory of southern Louisiana, an area cut off from the world and existing beyond the rules and laws of mainland society. Through the eyes of the six-year-old lead, Hushpuppy, we are given an intimate look into the lives of the residents there and the close-knit, contained community that has developed.
However, there are some forces of the outside world that this community cannot escape from, and early on it becomes apparent that a storm, assumed to be Hurricane Katrina, is heading right their way. As the storm approaches, the already disordered existence of Hushpuppy and her volatile father are thrown into yet further turmoil as we watch them struggle through the devastation of the storm and its aftermath.
Throughout the action, Hushpuppy remains a sturdy and resilient master of survival, an instantly likeable character whose force and presence far surpass her tiny stature. As the world around her crumbles, her relationship with her troubled father grows closer and their defiance and libertarianism even stronger. When at one point they, along with their colourful troupe of fellow survivors, are herded up by social services, we find ourselves urging them to break free of the confinements of the official shelter, to escape the well-meaning staff and return to the paradoxical safety of their home. The fact is the characters of this film cannot exist in the ordered world that lies beyond the Bayou. They do not need help and will resist it to the end. Indeed, the thought of that world being forced on them is almost frightening.
None of the actors in Beasts of the Southern Wild are professionally trained; one of the leads was, and still remains, a bakery owner in New Orleans. It is perhaps this very honesty, the unrehearsed nature of the dialogue and rawness of the performances that really provide the true beauty of the film. The action is real, gritty and at times uncomfortable; there is no glossy finish given to the grim reality of the characters’ lives. Instead we are given an unsettling portrayal of poverty and the simple cruelty of life.
But as close to the bone as it can be, at times this film is as far from reality as you can get. The appearance of aurochs, giant prehistoric hooved creatures that have escaped the ice caps, takes the action into an entirely different, almost magical realist, place. These creatures could be read in many ways, perhaps symbolic of the destruction of the natural world or even as the constant threat of death. But perhaps more poignantly they are the embodiment of Hushpuppy’s own fears, the looming threats of her future that she must face up to and reconcile with as life as she knows it begins to change irreversibly.
Benh Zeitlin’s take on the Hurricane Katrina disaster deserves every prize it has already collected and there will surely be more to come. It combines the rawness and honesty of a life under threat with the magical wanderings of a small child, a lead who is able to find safety and calm in nature even while it destroys the world around her. It is a story of endurance:uplifting, poetic and brilliant.
Image taken from: http://www.flygirlblog.com/2012/06/beasts-of-the-southern-wild.html
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