There’s a joyous scene in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” in which the bayou residents of an isolated Louisiana community nicknamed “The Bathtub”—so named because they live on the other side of a post-Katrina levee—celebrate with fireworks.
Those weren’t the only fireworks that this little indie film set off. The low-budget drama by Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin won the Camera d’Or and FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes, the Cinematography Award and Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and the Audience Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
But it’s also sparked controversy. The Screen Actors Guild ruled it ineligible for post-season awards because the film did not cover actors under a union SAG-AFTRA contract. Director Zeitlin used a New Orleans bakery owner with no acting experience as his male lead, and for the female lead plucked a six-year-old newcomer from 3500 hopefuls at an open audition. Using non-actors wasn’t the issue; it was paying them scale.
Then there’s the love-it-or-hate-it critical response. Melissa Anderson of The Village Voice called it “A zealous gumbo of regionalism, magic realism, post-Katrina allegory, myth, and ecological parable,” while A.O. Scott of The New York Times termed it “a blast of sheer, improbably joy, a boisterous, thrilling action movie.” Others jumped on the praisewagon, but not Chris Tookey of the London Daily Mail, who deemed it an “absolutely dreadful” bit of filmmaking that’s “a memorably daft collision of social realism and Left-wing wishful thinking. The 29-year-old director Benh Zeitlin has come up with smug liberal hokum that patronises its subject matter, America’s rural poor.”
Anyone who’s watched “Honey Boo Boo,” “Swamp People,” or “Duck Dynasty” will probably wonder what the fuss is about. America has no problem watching its lower-class poor or “rednecks” on a reality show, but prefers to look the other way otherwise. I seriously doubt that Zeitlin and Alibar were trying to either lionize or exploit poor people—many of them black—in “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” It is most certainly a political film, but I think Tokey has the wrong “wing.” “Beasts of the Southern Wild” strikes me as a celebration of libertarianism, which is more often associated with the far political right.
Consider that we have a small group of people who live like a tribe unto themselves on an island outside of the levee in a post-Katrina world. They’re poor, yes, but they’re not impoverished. They may not have material things, but in this film they seem to have all they need . . . or rather, want. What they emphatically do NOT want is to be forced to live inside the levee with all of the other Louisianans. They are happy as seagulls in a McDonald’s parking lot to be living apart from “civilization” in The Bathtub, where they may not have society’s protections, but also are spared society’s rules and restrictions. As an enormous storm approaches, they fear being sent to a shelter more than they fear the storm itself.
True libertarians believe that morality is no business of the federal government, so if the Bathtubbers want to party with alcohol and drugs and celebrate their own holidays, why, that’s their business. It’s also nobody else’s business if Wink (Dwight Henry) wants to tend to his six-year-old daughter, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), in separate houses. That’s just his way of parenting. And it sure as hell isn’t the mainland’s business if The Bathtubbers have a school in which the teacher (Gina Montana) stresses survival skills rather than math and reading, or if she wants to emphasize the only bit of science that’s most relevant to a community living at sea level: global warming. It’s Miss Bathsheba’s stories of Ice Age creatures like the Aurochs, prehistoric cattle who appear in Hushpuppy’s imagination as giant hogs—since that’s the only livestock familiar to her—that constitute the only science they learn, at least in the span of this 93-minute film.
To Hushpuppy, the creatures that appear only occasionally in this film are as real as the storm that threatens to sock their little community once more. But that’s not where the title comes from. Bathtubbers routinely encourage the kids to become “beasts”—to roar, or to tear open a crab and eat it with bare hands rather than cutting it with a knife. It’s a different lifestyle, but more importantly, a different value system. Conveying their values and their way of life clearly matter more to the writer and director than anything else—even the plot, which is actually minimal.
A storm is coming, the icecaps are melting, the Aurochs are thawing (and coming too), and a disease that pounds away at Wink is growing more fierce and troublesome every day. The only additional narrative action occurs when Hushpuppy goes with other children in search of her mother and ends up at a floating dance-hall/whorehouse, and when the Bathtubbers deal with the storm and the levee. It all adds suspense, but really the lifestyle of these people takes center stage. It’s hard not to appreciate their joie de vivre, or the believable performances these non-actors give. They’re both “beasts”!
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” was shot on the cheap with 16mm film and a hand-held camera, and it has a guerilla filmmaking look to it. There’s more grain than most people will expect with a Blu-ray these days, but it’s certainly compatible with the grittiness of the subject matter and the rough editing that relies heavily on jump cuts. I haven’t seen the DVD, but I can tell that the Blu-ray is an improvement because close-ups do reveal some sharp detail on such things as skin, hair, and other textures. I saw no issues with the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer, and while the color palette is a little drab at times and a number of scenes can seem a little soft looking, overall this is a fine presentation for an indie film.
When the storm cranks up, the soundtrack really gets dynamic, but even with dialogue the English DTS-HD MA 5.1 does a nice job of delivering clear, precise audio without showing up the video or striking a pose of incompatiblilty. When the eclectic mix of American roots music and pop-rock kicks in, the rear speakers really come to life. But there’s also a nice sense of ambient sound that travels logically across the field. Even when a helicopter hovers overhead, the sound seems to hug the ceiling. It’s a very nice track that does more than you think it would. There’s an additional audio option in Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
The filmmakers obviously knew they had something here, because there’s a little more in the way of bonus features than most indie flicks offer. While there’s no commentary track (and I’ve grown less fond of these over the years), there’s a comprehensive “making of” feature that runs 22 minutes and reveals an awful lot about what went on behind the scenes, both in the thought process, in the casting, and in the filming. Like, how do you create a perfect storm with an imperfect budget? It’s a must-see for would-be filmmakers. In addition, though casting is covered in the making-of feature, there are another 15 minutes of audition tapes for the two stars, plus a clip of the two of them running lines together.
And how do you film gigantic prehistoric beasts on a low budget? You get Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs and dress them up, the way the old “Flash Gordon” serials made dinosaurs out of iguanas. A three-minute featurette shows how they did that, while another three-minute featurette quickly skims over the score and the compromise that permitted such a variant collection of songs. Finally, in addition to 14 minutes of deleted scenes, with director’s commentary, we get Zeitlin’s first short film, which also deals with post-hurricane survival.
This gritty cinéma vérité drama seems to inspire love-it or hate-it reactions. Either way, it’s a memorable little film that offers, as its heroes, a rugged but fun-loving group that doesn’t just march to a different drummer from the rest of us. They’re their OWN drummers.