A Tableau of Freedom in Beasts of the Southern Wild
At first glance, Hushpuppy, in undershirt, panties, and knee-high Wellies, needs immediate rescue. The six-year-old heroine of writer/director Benh Zeitlin's, Beasts of the Southern Wild, lives with her father in an area just south of New Orleans, known as "The Bathtub." The Bathtub represents that strange and unfamiliar space where celebrations are often, home and heart function as one, and tall-tales blend easily with reality to create a dramatic realism with indistinguishable boundaries. Zeitlin, 29, introduces moviegoers to authentic Bayou culture and its denizens, both of which visitors bypass at top speed for the fun and fancy of New Orleans proper.
Zeitlin said the concept of the film came from a desire to examine the Louisiana communities that go down into the marsh, literally, falling off into the waters of the bayou. Not since Kasi Lemmons' Eve's Bayou (1997) and David Beaird's Scorchers (1991) has a director so majestically captured Louisiana's bayous or their cultures.
"There is a vibrant series of towns, right on the edge of where the land is falling off into the water. And the culture of the place is not any one culture; it's things that are pulled from all over the place in South Louisiana. There's New Orleans culture, south Louisiana culture, west Louisiana culture, a sort of mixing of rural and urban culture. It's really a pastiche of things that all exist. I don't think I ever purely made something up. Most everything is authentic," Zeitlin said.
"Culturally, like what people do and how people live and act. There is a heightened sense of reality in that its volume is turned way up, then it's all sort of crunched into this tiny little community," Zeitlin said.
Beasts of the Southern Wild follows Hushpuppy and her father, Wink, as they hunker down for an impending storm that threatens to disrupt the delicate balance of home and happiness. Wink, played by actor Dwight Henry, is unconventional, passionate, and determined to make his daughter self-sufficient and self-determined. Despite her gender, or perhaps because of it, Hushpuppy's lessons in self-reliance include her Dad shouting at her with deliberate aggression: "Who the man?" To her growl and posturing retort, "I'm the man!"
Stand out performances were given by Lowell Landes, who plays "Walrus" and Gina Montana , the ever-spunky "Miss Bathsheba", who embody the people of the bayou – good natured, pure-hearted, and resilient.
When Wink becomes ill, Hushpuppy's self-reliance pays off in major ways. In addition to searching for her mother, who is only marginally mentioned in the film, though Hushpuppy calls out for her often when her father's health begins to fail. Along her journey to find her mother, Hushpuppy encounters mythical beasts, called aurochs that in myths and fables destroy the lives of bayou folk. For Henry, who was 2-years-old when Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans, said that his parents had to put him on the roof of the house during the storm.
"I'm from New Orleans. Before I was cast in the part I owned a bakery called Henry's Bakery and Deli right across the street from the casting agency where (production company) Court 13 had their studio. I was in Hurricane Katrina in neck-high water. I have an inside understanding for what this movie is about. I brought a passion to the part that an outside actor who had never seen a storm or been in a flood or faced losing everything could have," Henry, 46, said. "An outsider couldn't have brought the passion to the role that I did."
As priceless a character as William "Compo" Simonite in tattered clothes and Wellies no less – Hushpuppy, played by Quvenzhané Wallis, is the thriving imagination and freedom lost by children in urban and tech savvy spaces.
Wallis nailed the part of the free-spirited Hushpuppy from the audition, but finding an actor to portray her dad that she gelled with, was not so easy a task.
According to Henry, Wallis, 8, rejected two other actors that were supposed to play her father. She didn't feel comfortable with them.
"She's the star and ultimately the decision on who would play her father was left up to her. I had to figure out a way to win her heart over. Since I own a bakery I decided to box up a whole bunch of cookies and brownies and things. As soon as I saw her, I handed over the pastries and smiled. She smiled back and I knew I had her," Henry said.
As for Wallis, having braved months of mosquito bites, playing with a pig (which she didn't like very much) and delivering the performance of a lifetime, she hopes moviegoers understand the overarching themes of love and community.
"I wanted to teach a lesson about how you should take care of who is in your family. You do what you have to do to take care of them. I wanted people to see that a parent is supposed to be with their child every moment, and care about what they are thinking... ask about their feelings.