A big-screen adaptation of Lucy Alibar’s play Juicy and Delicious, Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) is a picturesque coming of age tale imbued with an aura of magical realism and an underlying cultural message about our fluctuating global environment. Precocious six-year-old Hush Puppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) lives with her father Wink (Bwight Henry) in a pair of unassuming shacks in an isolated area of Louisiana called the ‘Bathtub’. They, like all the new-age inhabitants of this self-sufficient populous, spend their days trawling for food and their evenings frolicking and enjoying the rapturous atmosphere of this tight knit community.
Militantly loyal to their small idyll, this small group are reluctant to heed the meteorological warnings regarding potentially devastating floods, however their resolve is tested when the biggest storm to hit this small island hamlet threatens to destroy their fragile society. Told through the juvenile and imaginative eyes of Hush Puppy, the film’s endearing and adorable lead, Wallis’ strikingly assured performance is what makes Beasts of the Southern Wild such a compelling and enthralling experience.
Central to the narrative thrust, Hush Puppy’s innocent and inquisitive demeanour creates a beguiling sense of fantasy out of this otherwise gritty subject, with Willis’ tour de force performance captivating the audience from the outset. Combining the playful flights of the imagination of Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are (2010) with the rich visual flourishes and emotionally engaging narration of a Terrence Malick film, Zeitlin has created a metaphysical fairy-tale which whilst wearing its influences firmly on its sleeve, manages to construct its own unique identity.
Indeed, it’s hard not to become mesmerised by Zeitlin’s sinuous tapestry of warm, earthy tones and the poetic stride that pushes his opulent imagery into the foreground. It’s through this dexterous collection of rich aesthetics and illusory storytelling that this burgeoning director has managed to create a heart-warming allegory for global warming littered with an abundance of post-Katrina sentiment.
There are times when it feels like Zeitlin (who had previously only experienced working on short films and music videos) struggles to keep the momentum flowing of his assured debut after an electrifying opening. However, whilst Beasts of the Southern Wild could understandably be accused of promoting style over substance, the intoxicating approach on show is more than enough to make this enchanted tale of climate change a remarkably gratifying experience.
The 56th BFI London Film Festival runs from 10-21 October. For more of our LFF coverage, simply follow this link.