New Orleans-based filmmaker Benh Zeitlin’s feature debut is a poetic realist movie so mercurial, enchanting and full of imagination that it had me swooning. With plaudits including a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, plus another best film award at this year’s Cannes film festival, in two months time, I’ll certainly be surprised if it doesn’t sweep up a plethora of Academy nominations. But then again, this film is deserving of far more than just a couple of Golden guys called Oscar; Zeitlin and his universally impressive cast and crew are after your heart.
Based on a stage play by co-writer Lucy Alibar, Beasts follow the whimsical world of a precocious six-year-old girl called Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), living in abject poverty in the idyllic and rundown bayou community known fondly as “The Bathtub”. Inhabited by a community of eccentric outcasts, including her stern father Wink (Dwight Henry), it’s a natural wasteland off the beaten track in Louisiana. Whether it’s a realm of the present, the future or the unknown, the altruistic community is on the brink of a very real natural disaster, a la Hurricane Katrina. This risk doesn’t stop the residents from living a humble, merry life, wandering across the tub in makeshift houseboats, fishing, drinking and running riot across their claimed town. They embody the sense of rebellion and freedom found in Maurice Sendak’s timeless children’s book Where the Wild Things Are (and, to a lesser extent, the movie adaptation). In fact, if there’s anything that does scare them, it’s the old folklore of the Aurochs – an ancient boar tribe that used to roam this land during the Ice Age. With the natural disasters and global warming, the monsters just might rear their ugly heads.
Whilst the narrative may be slight and incidental, Beasts is driven by it’s sense of community spirit and the tender father and daughter relationship. With risk of being a critical pariah, it all reminded me of Disney’s feline friendly animation The Lion King, with Hushpuppy and Wink closely resembles Sima and Mufasa. It’s in the young girl’s desire to defy her little boundaries, to mature and find her roar, whilst her ailing father looks on idly in the wings, unable to express his pride and deep regret that his wife couldn’t be there to see the beautiful beast that the pair have created.
It’s great testament that the film never gets too allegorical or become a pointed critique on attitudes to global warming. Instead, Zeitlin grabs our attention via striking an emotional cord. It’s partly his vision, but the performances are what linger. Shot when she was just 5 years old, Wallis is the closest thing I’ve seen to unbridled cinematic purity since Aida Mohammadkhani’s performance in Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s debut The White Balloon. She doesn’t really perform as a child, she is a child, with all the innocence and curiosity that comes with it. The sense of reality and pertinence deepens by Zeitlin and crew casting a bunch of New Orleans locals too, none more so than the astonishing non-actor Dwight Henry as Wink, who was discovered as the boss at a bakery next to the production office.
Although comparisons with Terrence Malick’s use of landscape as character are aplenty, Zeitlin has managed to do the most gallant thing a debut director could do, make a film so nobly unclassifiable. There’s elements of comedy in the eccentric swamp folk, alongside great tragedy, fantasy and, to some extent, natural horror. With the Cajun speckled score by Zeitlin and Dan Romer heightens the ethereal spirit emanating from cinematographer Ben Richardson’s brilliantly inquisitive handheld capture tracking shots, it’s pure imagination. Beauty and the Beast, and one of the the year’s best.
PS – If I may be so bold, I think this film would be perfectly accompanied by City World, the directorial debut from Orlando filmmaker Brent Chesanek. Read more, and listen to my conversation with Brent, here.