A surprise inclusion in many categories at this year’s Academy Awards, Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) arrives on DVD and Blu-ray this week with a great deal of critical fanfare. A magical realist fable of rural poverty in deep Louisiana, Beasts follows the story of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father Wink (Dwight Henry), whose small community is beset by near-biblical floods. The sense of scale is widened by the inclusion of a subplot about a group of prehistoric animals called aurochs – multi-tusked boars the size of mammoths – which are revived by the melting of polar ice caps and begin to travel across the land.
Much of the acclaim for Beasts of the Southern Wild focuses on the central performance by Wallis in the central role. Only five-years-old when she was first cast, Wallis delivers the kind of turn one only sees very rarely in cinema; the kind which is diminished by the very label ‘child performance’. Wallis is an actor of great and obvious talent, and quite whether the film would work as well as it does without her is a legitimate topic of debate.
Zeitlin certainly gets a great deal out of most of his non-professional cast of players. The vast majority of performances within Beasts of the Southern Wild feel just right, though nobody tops Wallis (Dwight Henry, who plays Hushpuppy’s father, Wink, comes very close). Wink is a strange, violent, unpleasant man who expresses his parental concern chiefly through the same bullying and aggression that he offers to everyone else near by. He has his moments of softness, but they are almost always balanced by a sense of meanness. Wink’s lessons of domination-as-self-reliance do not seem to be supported by the film, which instead revels in the sense of community in the Bathtub.
There are perhaps questions to asked about whether Beasts of the Southern Wild delights in proud poverty, but by and large, Zeitlin sidestep this issue by committing completely to Hushpuppy’s point-of-view; the camera is always at her level, never looking down at her. Often very beautiful, the film is further enriched by the cinematography by Ben Richardson, and augmented further a powerful score by Dan Romer. Featuring a couple of stellar turns from its leads, Zeitlin’s debut has a particular tone of boldness and emotional grit which has already proven extremely enticing to both home and international audiences.