With two lead actors having no previous experience, a director without a feature-length film on his resume and little funding to make ambitious ideas an actuality, it’s a wonder “Beasts of the Southern Wild” was even produced.
But it was, and the mesmerizing product turned out to be well worth the risk.
“It was sort of like a jump off a cliff, a little bit, making (the movie),” Director and Screenwriter Benh Zeitlin says. “Everybody doing the film, the actors, everybody was doing it for the first time, so you don’t really know if you’re going to come out alive, but you just kind of go for it.”
Filmmakers certainly came out alive. “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which premieres locally on July 4 in New Orleans, won the Grand Jury Prize and the Excellence in Cinematography Award at Sundance Film Festival 2012. It has since been picked up by FOX Searchlight Pictures.
The movie was filmed mostly in Terrebonne Parish marshland, and the two lead actors, neither with previous acting experience, have Terrebonne Parish roots.
As expected with an award-winner, the film has been the recipient of glowing worldwide coverage. The Daily Beast called it “one of the year’s best films,” and The New York Times published a feature story on the movie’s making. The Atlantic, Variety and Hollywood Reporter have all chimed in with praise.
“It’s a film so completely unique that it’s hard to imagine how it was even made,” wrote Damon Wise for The Guardian.
Told through the assured voice of 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), the story is one of survival, maturation and determination. In the face of a hurricane and health complications, she and her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), must cope with side effects of living a primal lifestyle disconnected from society. It’s a thread that binds the two through moments of contention and austere parenting.
A levee separates their community, known as the Bathtub, from the rest of the world, and the father-daughter duo couldn’t be more pleased with their stilted trailers – they live in separate dwellings – fire-roasted livestock, lack of manufactured toys and boat, which was fabricated from a truck bed.
But after the storm, their community stays true to its namesake. Their boat floats atop the stagnant water as the two reconnect with neighbors and search for the plug to drain the water and resume their life.
The story, although fictionalized, touches on inspiration Zeitlin gleaned while living and filming in Terrebonne Parish. Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar collaborated on the script while residing in Point-aux-Chenes. For inspiration, they made trips to Isle de Jean Charles, a community whose inhabitants’ refusal to leave the ridge is encapsulated in the script.
“I just looked at the map and started driving to the end of every town (in coastal Louisiana),” Zeitlin says. “When I got down to the end of Point-aux-Chenes, it sort of felt like there’s a real tenacious, vibrant community that’s still holding out right at the edge. I was really inspired by that.
“It’s a tragic story, but it’s also really inspiring, the people that are still (on Isle de Jean Charles) holding on.”
Hushpuppy dispenses sage truths throughout her narration, her vocabulary and squeaky voice the only clues to her age. She twice repeats a quote that illuminates her understanding that the all-important present is a living history.
“They gonna know,” she says of future “scientists” who she hopes will one day discover her story, “that once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her Daddy in the Bathtub.”
Zeitlin provides a solid case for why some coastal residents refuse to migrate north in the face of coastal erosion. The director treats the emotional spectrum like a keyboard, his fingertips furiously dancing across an audience’s spine during the 93-minute film. There are vivid moments of joy and despair, shame and contentment, determination and apprehension, the feelings often blending into one another, only heartbeats apart.
The range of conflict is just as broad, as the viewer sees man versus man, man versus self and man versus nature, metaphorically and literally. Wink, wanting to assuage Hushpuppy’s fears during the hurricane, takes his shotgun outside, scolds the storm and begins firing into the sky.
A 6-year-old’s imagination is laced through it all, accented by Zeitlin’s own creativity and affinity for imagery.
One of the film’s dominant messages is the necessity for the universe’s components to exist in an uninterrupted harmony. As the audience is shown video of melting ice caps caused by climate change, the Aurochs begin to thaw, ushering in a sense of impending death.
The mammoth beasts thunder across the landscape, and their beating hooves serve the same purpose as a clock’s tick. In the story’s climactic moment, Hushpuppy locks eyes with an Auroch and comes to grips with a stark fear developed through the course of the film – loss.
Neither Wallis, who was 5 when she auditioned, nor Henry had ever acted before, and this is Zeitlin’s first feature-length film.
Wallis, now an 8-year-old fourth-grader at Honduras Elementary School, says she’d like to pursue acting further because “you get to meet different people and different directors.”
Houma’s star actor admits the most difficult aspect of her role was the close contact with pigs, which were used to portray the Aurochs in the low-budget film. Wallis adds that she could see herself being friends with Hushpuppy. “She’s nice,” she says. “She just cared about every thing.”
Zeitlin also seems to have a bright future. The 29-year-old director says he’s working on another script at the moment and hopes to delve further into his work once the firestorm around “Beasts of the Southern Wild” subsides.
Hushpuppy, played by Houma’s Quvenzhané Wallis, sits perched on her family’s boat, fabricated from the bed of a truck. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” premieres July 4 in New Orleans’ Canal Place Theatre and Prytania Theatre and Harahan’s Elmwood Plaza.