'Beasts of the Southern Wild': A magical trip to bayou country
Let the wild rumpus begin. Again.
Although in many ways they are entirely different, um, beasts, Spike Jonze's 2009 adaptation of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are and Benh Zeitlin's Sundance and Cannes winner Beasts of the Southern Wild share deep thematic and artistic elements.
Both have a child hero venturing into strange, dreamlike worlds, facing daunting physical and psychic challenges, looking for friends on unfamiliar, uncertain turf.
One film, Jonze's, cost a bunch more money, and the other is scruffy and indie-minded, but the visions are remarkably similar.
I don't mean to diminish Zeitlin's dazzling accomplishment by drawing comparisons to Where the Wild Things Are (which I liked a lot), but the two movies celebrate the force and fire of a child's spirit, resilience, imagination.
On top of all that, Beasts of the Southern Wild offers a trippy travelogue across a wide delta, through bayou country where people live in floating shacks, a roiling community infused with Cajun culture and a sense of chaos and calamity. Chickens, goats, pigs, and scrawny dogs share the funky habitats - homes built out of pickup beds, trailers, Dumpsters, mud - with old-timers and outcasts, musicians, shrimpers, teachers. The place is called the Bathtub, and it's literally about to overflow.
Hushpuppy is the name of Zeitlin's heroine, and she is played with uncanny certitude by Quvenzhané Wallis, a grade schooler who has never acted before, and acts up a storm here - but not in any way that takes us out of the story. Indeed, little Ms. Wallis, with her fierce eyes and plaintive narration, takes us into the story, deeply. It's a story about a father, Wink (Dwight Henry - a Louisiana baker by trade, also making his screen debut), who may be dying, and a place that may be dying along with him, and the lessons he tries to impart to his daughter. She must be strong, she must be defiant, she must survive.
And like Where the Wild Things Are, there are wild things here: not Sendak's galumphing behemoths, with their horns and big, sleepy monster faces. In Zeitlin's film, they are aurochs - thundering prehistoric creatures, a restless herd emblematic of ages long vanished, but also of the endless, tumultuous cycles of life. Proud Paleolithic bison, they rumble across the screen, kicking up dust storms of their own mythology.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is like outsider art: patched together with found materials, conjured up by untrained artists (the actors), and evocative of a truly American attitude of eccentricity, boldness, transcendence.
The specter of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath hovers over the story - if not literally, then metaphorically. Zeitlin, who reshaped a one-act play by Lucy Alibar, Juicy and Delicious, to make Beasts of the Southern Wild, juxtaposes music and image to create swelling emotional tides. If you take a look at his 2008 short "Glory at Sea," available on YouTube, its score, by Zeitlin and Dan Romer, works in much the same manner. (In fact, the short's waterscape tableaux, its child protagonist, its Louisiana parish locales, all feel of a piece with Beasts.)
Beasts of the Southern Wild transports us to places that are peculiar and dangerous and magical, and makes us feel weirdly at home.