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As I passed the 40 or so people waiting in line to get tickets for Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar‘s Sundance- and Cannes-winning Beasts of the Southern Wild this past Saturday at the IU Cinema, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this film. It’s rare that a film lives up to its hype, and in this case, what little hype I read about BotSW seems completely and totally deserving. I came out of the experience totally in awe.

beasts posterA cross between David Gordon Green’s George Washington and David Wiesner’s children’s book Hurricane dipped in mescalineBotSW has incredibly magic moments of wonder and excitement and some of utter devastation as we follow Hushpuppy (played as well by Quvenzhané Wallis as any performance by a child actor I’ve seen) as she, her father Wink (Dwight Henry) and the residents of a long forgotten fringe community in Louisiana, known as the Bathtub, fight for survival as forces both natural and human try to end existence as they know it. Director Benh Zeitlin and screenwriter Lucy Alibar (whose play Juicy and Delicious the film is based on) manage to balance these moments quite nicely, never tipping the tone of the film too much in either direction.

Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father, Wink (Dwight Henry).

At the heart of this story is the struggle to survive. The Bathtub is a swampy island area barely above sea-level where laws are set by the residents and outside law doesn’t intervene, at least at first. In the wake of weather that unleashed storms like Hurricane Katrina, the residents of the Bathtub are just waiting for one more big disaster to wipe them off the map. Zeitlin establishes this peril by intercutting shots of giant pieces of Arctic ice sheets shucking off of the polar ice caps and crashing into the sea, which is very effective considering the constant debate about global warming and its effects on our climate.  When Wink disappears for a few days, 6-year old Hushpuppy is left to fend for herself as her mother left them some time ago. Wink returns wearing a hospital gown and she knows that something isn’t right. When he bans her from his “house” (they live in separate dwellings – one can’t really call them houses as they are slapdash, pieced together with bits of detritus and scrap), she gets angry, burns down her dwelling and makes a choice she believes effects the whole community for the worse.

As most of the community exits in order to save themselves from the fury that Hushpuppy believes she has unleashed, Wink and a few others stay around vowing never to leave the Bathtub and join the regular world – we only see a few glimpses of “civilization” in the form of factory or refinery buildings on the edge of the levee that separates them. Here, one of the many fantastical elements begin, and we see the once living, now extinct Auroch (which we hear about from the teacher/medicine woman Bathsheba [Gina Montana]) begin their chase to presumably eliminate Hushpuppy and the residents of the Bathtub. Even though traditionally the Auroch is the ancestor of the cow, those in the film look more like wild boars with four menacing tusks. One can’t help but to notice its resemblance to the giant pig that lives on Hushpuppy’s land, fat and lazy as if it’s a reflection of so many in modern society – something the Auroch of the past wishes to stamp out.

Bathsheba’s Auroch tattoo.

The mighty Auroch in search of Hushpuppy.

After the swell ends, the residents who remained in the Bathtub remain are faced with other more natural perils as the water that gives them food in the form of crab, shrimp and other fish becomes toxic. They are faced with one choice – engage the civilized world even though their actions can spell certain doom for their very existence. Once this barrier is breached, the outside law intervenes, forcing the evacuation of the Bathtub.  It is here that Wink’s demise is confirmed, as if his life essence is tied to the health and existence of the home he has had for so many years. When he is removed, his sickness accelerates. They are all shuttled to a refugee camp of sorts where they receive care and shelter, the children put into a classroom.

This world isn’t for them,  and it’s not long before they break out. The children under Hushpuppy’s guidance take off and swim to catch a boat out at sea.  Here the film takes another of its more fantastical interludes and the children are diverted to Elysian Fields Floating Catfish Shack/strip club operating somewhere on the water.

Hushpuppy on the Elysian Fields Floating Catfish Shack.

The children, all girls, are swarmed upon entering the boat by the women strippers (?) who are all dressed in lacy white nightgowns, angelically lit by the twinkle Christmas lights, seeming to float on the billowy red background. Since Elysian Fields is the final resting places of the souls of the heroic and the virtuous in Greek mythology, this leads us to wonder the exact nature of what transpires here. Is it real? The ethereal photography of this scene adds to the wonder. These women scoop the girls up, hug and dance with them. Hushpuppy meanders through the boat until she sees a woman, someone who may indeed be her mother. The only shot we see of her mother previously is of her derriere and there is a nice match shot here to lead us to believe that’s who this woman is. Is she alive? Or is this her version of Heaven?

We are led back to the Bathtub where Wink finally succumbs to his illness, whose funeral pyre is lit like a Viking warrior-king on his rickety makeshift boat fashioned out of an old truck bed and an outboard motor in a scene that really touched me. Maybe it’s because I am a father of two sons 5 and 7, and imagining the effect my death might have on them at their age is too much to consider. Here she also has the inevitable confrontation with the Aurochs. She explains, like them, that she needs to go back to where she began, that they are friends.

Nevertheless, at the end of the film, we come full circle. The remaining children of the Bathtub celebrate in similar fashion as the opening sequence – the torch is passed from one generation to the next who go on celebrating more holidays than anyone else in the world as Hushpuppy tells us in the beginning. The waters of the Bathub wash over their feet as they celebrate as if baptizing them, born anew, cleansed. And despite their home’s grit and lack of anything we might consider civilized, I couldn’t help but to want to celebrate with them.

Ben Richardson‘s photography was out of this world and the silent star of the film. I expect great things from him and I am curious to see his work on the new Joe Swanberg film, Drinking Buddies. If you get a chance to see this film, don’t pass it up. It is a visual feast and one certainly worthy of the ticket price. How many films can you say that about?

Here’s the trailer: