If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I never would have thought it possible to make a fairy tale out of Hurricane Katrina, but that’s exactly what first-time director Benh Zeitlin has done in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Assembled on a diet of film grants and award money, Beasts is a wildly imaginative piece as uncommon in its shimmering, gorgeous style as in its own mythology about the relentless horror of the hurricane.
Set in a fictional Louisiana shanty-town called the Bathtub, we meet Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), the story’s young, burgeoning hero. She’s wise beyond her years in some ways, but still burdened with a child’s way of thinking about life. The Bathtub, though, is a town stuck down below the levees, and the creek did rise.
Co-writers Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar have beset the Bathtub with contradiction and detritus, not least of which is the curiously small handful of remaining souls. Filthy and full of trash, Hushpuppy’s world is one that is real, yet imagined; innocent, yet harrowing; complex, yet simple. Above all, it is a world permeated with water – it penetrates the length, breadth and varying depths of the film, rendering a sense of weight, of fluidity and even of inevitability. Water provides and destroys; separates and unites.
Drinkable water, on the other hand, is scarce, and sacred enough in the Bathtub that even tears are regulated: They’re not allowed. They’re not even allowed when Hushpuppy’s biggest fear is more or less realized – that, in her selfishness (and, needless to say, in the film’s universe, not ours), she broke the world too bad to put it back together, causing the hurricane and her father’s illness. So great is her guilt that it takes the shape of a pack of extinct, bison-like creatures named aurochs, come back to life to wreck the Bathtub.
Much has been made of young Wallis’ performance, and it’s deserving of every scrap of praise it receives, but equally deserving is her co-star, Dwight Henry. A local baker who auditioned for the film on a whim, Henry delivers a knockdown, drag-out performance as Wink, Hushpuppy’s father.
Wink is another of Zeitlin and Alibar’s contradictions – a tough guy stricken with illness. He’s the mayor of the block yet he can regress like a child. Wink and Hushpuppy live together in the Bathtub, but they keep separate homes on the same patch of land, and many of the childish phrases, like, “It’s eat-up time!” come from him, not Hushpuppy.
Henry’s whole being is thrown into this character who, let’s face it, is kind of a piece of shit. But his Wink makes up for it in startling ways, as if he keeps only just remembering that he’s this little kid’s dad and she needs to know things, like how to catch catfish or split open a crab, how to be the man of the house when he’s gone and, perhaps most importantly, how to be the mayor of the Bathtub when he’s gone. Because whether it’s that inevitable water or something else that takes him away, there must never be tears.