Director Benh Zeitlin’s poverty-stricken tragi-drama, Beasts of the Southern Wild, is a bit of a beast itself — by turn bold, audacious and unfathomable, a high-powered grab for hearts and minds that has gallivanted through 2012 festival circuits, collecting a storm of kudos and conversation.

Zeitlin plonks audiences headfirst into ‘The Bathtub’, a poor Southern Delta community that looks like it’s been hit by a hurricane chased by a tsunami chased by an earthquake. Six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) blithely wanders across it, talking to herself, the audience, her late ma, her cranky father, and conjuring the presence of large mythical-like animals.

The film wanders with her, into crevices of loaded images and random vignettes, from grubby meals to viking funerals to a floating brothel that seems to have drifted in from the dystopian waters of Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006).

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Beasts of the Southern Wild maintains a frightening grasp of reality, tense situations and grim consequences mingled with a sort of quasi-spiritual existentialism. The film yanks heart strings but Zeitlin stands on the right side of emotional manipulation, though only just; sensitively handled sequences of confrontation, death and pathos have not entirely insulated him against accusations of “poverty porn“. The argument — not quite fair, but perhaps inevitable given the fearlessness of Zeitlin’s approach, the manner with which he submerges himself in these people’s lives — that he’s embraced circumstance over characters and wallowed in the mire.

Performances from a cast largely comprised of unprofessional actors are sometimes breathtakingly good, a fascinating turn from young’un Quvenzhané Wallis holding much of the dramatic weight in her little hands. Long, drifty and loosely connected scenes highlight structural issues but are mostly saved by the film’s salt-of-the-earth grasp of location and spatiality.

At the peak of its powers, Beasts of the Southern Wild goes well beyond the realms of the vivid or memorable, into a strange sister-world of anti-progress, where people find reason and satisfaction in poverty, or something very close to it. The water that surrounds citizens of The Bathtub seems to have washed out the material content of their lives, flooded them with a kind of reverse hope, a longing for things not to get better, or worse, but simply to “be.”

Beasts of the Southern Wild’s Australian theatrical release date: September 13, 2012. 

As a Crikey subscriber and someone who began working as a journalist in 1957, I am passionate about the importance of independent media like Crikey. I met a lot of Australians from many walks of life during my career and did my best to share their stories honestly and fairly with their fellow citizens.

And I never forgot how important it is to hold politicians to account. Crikey does that – something that is more important now than ever before in Australia.

Liz
North Stradbroke Island, QLD

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