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Call of the Wild

James Searle

Benh Zeitlin
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Journeyman Pictures
19 October
2012 (UK)





I’m not the first to see elements of Terrence Malick’s epic The Tree of Life in Beasts of the Southern Wild, the debut feature of Benh Zeitlin. Both are ambitious, dreamlike parables about the nature of existence relying on formless, wandering structures. Likewise, both films have attracted devout camps of supporters and detractors prepared to argue at length over their merits and failings. That said, there are two major distinctions between the films. First, Zeitlin’s film, based on the play Juicy and Delicious by Lucy Alibar, is far more accessible and narratively coherent than Malick’s. Moreover, while The Tree of Life obsesses over the balance between the way of Nature (harsh, passionate, male) and the way of Grace (reserved, gentle, female), Wild abandons all traces of civilisation and restraint. This is not a film about balance, but one about raw emotion and embracing nature completely.

The film takes place in an imaginary bayou nicknamed Bathtub just outside of New Orleans, separated off from the city by enormous levees and at some point doomed to flood. The people of Bathtub live a life of subsistence, living in houses cobbled together from the leftovers of industrial society and feeding themselves with whatever they can find. This is where a young girl named Hushpuppy (played by Quvenzhané Wallis in a justifiably raved-about performance) lives in a small house adjacent to that of her father Wink (Dwight Henry). Following a chaotic storm, the film follows the residents of Bathtub as they fight for survival amid the rising tides and attempt to avoid the gentrification foisted upon them by those on the other side of the levee.

The plot, however, really feels like a distraction from the film’s main purpose.The story of Hushpuppy’s journey is enjoyable, but the film is at is best when it focuses on the virtues of Bathtub, where man exists in harmony with nature and where every day ends with a carnival of drunk excess. In Bathtub humanity embraces its place in the universe as a beast, realising its place as a cohesive part of the world. This position is encapsulated by Wink, a lightning bolt of energy who bursts and rages across the screen. The untrained Henry portrays Wink as a torrent of emotion, oscillating between rage and tenderness as well as pride and vulnerability. While all these sides never quite cohere into one fully formed character, Henry’s commitment to each one creates a volatile, powerful performance which dominates the screen. While the film is always aware of Wink’s character flaws, through his infectious spirit and his bond with the other residents of Bathtub it more than captures how the beast-life he represents is thrilling, honest and joyful.

The film’s two standout scenes mirror Wink’s effervescent energy. The opening carnival scene is a glorious cacophony of sound and vision that leaps off the screen, aided by Zeitlin and Dan Romer’s excellent score. Likewise, a drunken flashback to the first meeting of Wink and Hushpuppy’s mother is a mesmeric, woozy cocktail of sex and death. Both scenes leave the viewer totally absorbed in the film’s lust for life. Beasts of the Southern Wild is by no means perfect—it suffers from overbearing narration, clunky visual metaphors and a rather formless lull in its second half—but it is one of the year’s most special and memorable efforts. At its best it is a seductive, compulsive and inspiring call of the wild.

James Searle is reading for an MPhil in Political Science at St Anne’s College, Oxford.