Beasts Of The Southern Wild (directed by Benh Zeitlin from Lucy Alibar’s play “Juicy and Delicious”) is a bit of an oddity, a strange mash-up of styles and ideas that’s certainly original but doesn’t always hold your attention as well as it might, despite some eye-catching locations and boldly realised flights of imagination. It’s set in a fictional (but probably perfectly representative) bayou community on the coast of one of those American deep South states that are particularly vulnerable to tropical storms and the use of non-professional actors and free-flowing camerawork give it the surface feel of a documentary about the aftermath of a Katrina-style catastrophe. We see jerry-built shacks that have been reduced to ragged planks, farm animals wandering around incongruously in swamps and families clinging on to life in motley collections of improvised vessels. It seems however that the rising waters may be down to more than just one errant hurricane: a voiceover and several cutaways to scenes of ice calving dramatically into the sea at the poles imply that these people’s plight may be the result of a more global environmental change, and a dash of magic realism is stirred into the mix when we learn of the presence of Aurochs – vast and voracious hog-like beasts – in the ice.
Despite the apocalyptic subject matter the tone of the film is actually pretty upbeat for much of the time, possibly because we’re seeing the scenario through the eyes of the six-year old Hushpuppy (an amazing performance from Quvenzhané Wallis) who lives with her caring but strangely volatile father Wink in a couple of propped up caravans in the heart of the swamp. Her neighbours are kind and generous of spirit and there are plenty of opportunities for the little girl to have fun and express herself, even after disaster strikes. Her main concern is the health of her father, who’s prone to moodswings and abrupt disappearances and it’s this that provides what passes for a narrative backbone for the film, which otherwise seems fairly content to freewheel its way through some admittedly very authentic and convincingly detailed sequences showing life carrying on through chaos. It reminded me quite a lot of one of Werner Herzog’s projects, what with the muddy and implacable waters surrounding everything, the lived-in and natural appearance of the characters and the emphasis on observing real lives as opposed to forcing along a plot for the sake of the audience’s attention.
All of the parts of the film that deal with Hushpuppy’s story and how her community copes with its disaster are fine, although there’s maybe a little too much dispensing of folksy wisdom for my taste. Less successful, however, are the intercut sequences showing the mighty Aurochs gradually making their way from the icecaps to the lagoons – it was always going to be difficult to graft a fantastical conceit like this onto something so naturalistically realised, and although the film-makers do their best with dramatic close-ups, and slow-motion and big, rumbly sound-effects it’s got to be said that these behemoths do look a bit like pot-bellied pigs with horns stuck on their foreheads. Thankfully they don’t appear very much and don’t actively derail proceedings, but I do wonder why they bothered as there’s plenty of visual stimulation to be had elsewhere in the film. As a sum-up: Beasts is unusual and striking, and shows a part of the world you don’t get to see much on the big screen, and for this it’s definitely worth a look.