After receiving rapturous acclaim earlier this year at Sundance, Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) makes its way to the 65th Cannes Film Festival under an ominous cloud of anticipation. The film follows Hushpuppy (played by outstanding newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis), a little girl who lives with her daddy, Wink (Dwight Henry), in Bathtub, a small, ramshackle Louisianan riverside township of rummies, hippies and general down-and-outs.
Although in close proximity to her father, Hushpuppy lives out an independent existence that involves communicating with her absent mother, drawing on the walls and furniture and tending to the animals that she keeps as pets including pigs and a yapping dog. She even manages to go to school every now and then, but this being Bathtub, it isn’t exactly a conventional education. “You are all meat”, the teacher tells her wards – that is, when she’s not preparing voodoo medicine.
It takes a while to get used to seeing this little girl lighting the gas oven with a blow torch – American football helmet worn as protection. “We are who the world was made for”, Hushpuppy explains. However, this wild idyll is fragile and Bathtub, as its name suggests, is prone to flooding. Following on from a catastrophic storm, an environmental disaster seems imminent, with massive tusked aurochs waking from the Lovecraftian depths on route to Bathtub.
Watching Beasts of the Southern Wild in the same week as Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (review here) gives rise to numerous unfair comparisons, yet Zeitlin’s debut feature is very much its own beast and manages to be daring, innovative and intensely moving without ever dropping into mawkishness: “No tears”, as Wink admonishes. Wallis is a revelation as Hushpuppy, a fearsome presence who is at once vulnerable and totally capable of facing down any number of terrors. She is also our narrator and her narrative has a wonderfully hypnotically quality. Henry also deserves immense credit for his role as Hushpuppy’s fiercely free-thinking, hard-drinking father.
Both of the film’s superb leads were present at this morning’s screening, along with director Zeitlin, and were the deserving recipients of a long standing ovation. Beasts of the Southern Wild is easily one of the most exciting debut American films for some time, serving up surreal a hefty dose of Louisianan Gothic surrealism with a fresh millennial twist.
The 65th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 16-27 May, 2012. For more of our Cannes 2012 coverage, simply follow this link.