Living on the margins does not mean what you think it does. Early in writer/director Benh Zeitlin’s electric debut feature, Beasts of the Southern Wild, we watch a boat move across the screen. Well, not so much a boat as a repurposed fragment of a broken-down truck, set afloat and piloted slowly through the Louisiana bayous by six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis, six years old herself, and a revelation) and her volatile father, Wink (Dwight Henry). Everything in their subsistence, off-the-grid lives is broken-down and adapted, but the ocean stretches limitless behind them: their world is expansive, blue, inviting.
Then the camera’s point of view flips, and we see the boat from the other side, looking in towards land. Now Hushpuppy and Wink are small figures close up against a massive concrete levee, ugly industrial buildings hulking behind it. This is also their world: harsh, sterile, forbidding. To live on the fringes of society, the film suggests, does not mean blue-sky freedom of movement, and it does not mean a confining lack of options. It means both at once. Hushpuppy and Wink are marginal people. They live in a state of liminal, paradoxical transcendence.
‘Transcendent” is the key idea here, whether applied to the way Zeitlin’s characters refuse to be anything less than joyful in the face of their materially limited circumstances, or to the way he turns the limitations of a low budget into strengths (the ramshackle sets and the acting of the largely unprofessional cast are viscerally evocative), or to the soaring mood he achieves. This is, among other things, a film about death and disaster in the life of a small child, but it could hardly be less morbid.
In another early scene, we see the people of the Bathtub – the beautifully matter-of-fact name for Hushpuppy and Wink’s not-quite-legal coastal community – celebrate a holiday. A more ecstatic image than Hushpuppy running towards the camera, a lit roman candle in each hand, has rarely appeared on the screen. “The Bathtub’s got more holidays than all the rest of the world put together,” she says proudly. I tend to hate voice-over narration, but Hushpuppy’s intermittent voice-over is not the usual crutch for a director who can’t work out how to tell his story visually. It’s transformative, taking the often startling, often frightening events we’re shown and filtering them through a six-year- old’s mind, easing us into Hushpuppy’s reality.
When she and her father fight over something – a bitter fight, and one of several scenes in which Wallis’s and Henry’s acting becomes breathtaking – Hushpuppy ends up believing she has done something so bad that it will break the world, releasing ancient monsters and a terrible flood. The film does not suggest the flood that follows is only a child’s instinctive metaphor, and it does not suggest that the advancing monsters we see in glimpses are real: it manages to keep us poised, half in Hushpuppy’s world and half outside it, so we can grasp that both things are true.
This is magic realist film-making of the highest order, and it puts us in a position exactly analogous to that of the Bathtub’s defiant, exuberant citizens, inhabiting the film marginally, on the edges of our seats, in two contradictory realities at once.
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, directed by Benh Zeitlin
Films are rated out of 5: 1 = abysmal; 5 = amazing