"Beasts of the Southern Wild" is based on a one act play written by Lucy Aliba called "Juicy and Delicious." The movie was co-written by her and the movie's director, Benh Zeitlin, another of Wesleyan's ubiquitous graduates. It is a part fable, part coming of age (at a young age), part apocalyptic film done in a documentary format. It has won in Sundance and Cannes, has several Oscar nominations (including its six year old lead) and has some extraordinary qualities. The two main characters, Louisiana residents Quavenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry, have never acted before; the child lead is on screen for almost the entire film The second lead, a baker, initially refused the job to get his business up and running. The story is emotional, the scenery beautiful and the acting terrific. On the other side there is an almost painful quality about the lives that are struggling to be led and saved, an acceptance of filth, alcoholism and degeneracy that the individual bravery in the film transcends--but also highlights. There is pre-history imagery throughout that blunts the primitive lives a bit, but never softens it. But, to be fair, there is no reason to reserve nobility to the nobles.
The story takes place in a waterlocked area of the Bayou of Louisiana, isolated from the mainland, called "The Bathtub." The geography here is a major character--beautiful, threatening and vulnerable. The story line centers on Hushpuppy, a six year old child abandoned by her mother, who is watching her father die of an unnamed illness. The father, at the same time, is trying to teach his child life survival skills but, more importantly, an attitude of survival, an appreciation that strength and confidence is necessary to live. (This is a strong idea but there are some complexities with it in the film that seem to be purposeful although, with a film as unstructured as this, it is hard to be sure.) As he declines, the natural course of things is threatened as well. The weather changes, the polar caps melt. Rain and flooding threatens the tight, diverse, isolated community. More, the change is part of an apocalyptic world change that releases powerful beasts from icy hibernation. These beasts move south to coincide with Hushpuppy's immediate threats and fears.
The story alternates from the holiday mindset of the people and the beautiful scenery to the grim, claustrophobic makeshift houses and goofy imitation businesses. Sometime the holiday atmosphere and the claustrophobia merge. Hushpuppy wanders through all this defiantly and self possessed. In one brilliant recurring theme she does drawings that approximate cave drawings, musing that future scientists can point to this to prove something she already knows, her intrepid existence. Then storms strike, destruction threatens, lives are overturned. And the beasts are coming. Hushpuppy emerges from all of this like some sort of fantastic warrior princess.
The history of this film, and the film itself, are curiously unsettled, as if it evolved before the writers' eyes. The leads apparently did not merge into their characters; it seems the characters serendipitously adapted to them. Some of the scenes are terrific, some just silly. And the grimness of the real life is depressing and miserable. But a lot is done well. The scenery is spectacular, the isolated tribe is coherent and believably primitive--like some Conan Doyle out-of-time wonderworld. And the acting should make everyone reassess the value of acting school.