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.

Invest in the journalism that makes a difference.

EOFY Sale. A year for just $99.

SAVE 50%

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).

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. 

Save this EOFY while you make a difference

Australia has spoken. We want more from the people in power and deserve a media that keeps them on their toes. And thank you, because it’s been made abundantly clear that at Crikey we’re on the right track.

We’ve pushed our journalism as far as we could go. And that’s only been possible with reader support. Thank you. And if you haven’t yet subscribed, this is your time to join tens of thousands of Crikey members to take the plunge.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
SAVE 50%