There's so much going on in Beasts of the Southern Wild, the Sundance hit that opens here on Friday, July 13, that it's hard to explain what it's really about.
See what you think: Six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in a pair of cobbled-together houses in a remote rural region of Louisiana. With her sorely missed mother out of the picture, Wink scavenges for what they need. The community they live in, the Bathtub, is full of colorful types, and parades and parties are a regular thing, though almost everyone lives well below the poverty line. All this changes when a terrible flood ravages the Bathtub, washing away most of the population and leaving in its wake the aurochs, a monstrous herd of prehistoric pig-creatures who seek only to destroy everything in their path.
If all that leaves you scratching your head, it's cool, says director Benh Zeitlin. Even he's not sure he has all the answers to the questions the movie poses.
"I would say that I don't," Zeitlin says. "Or I've made an effort to stop thinking about them. Early on, I had a clearer sense, that it came from a series of events that objectively happened, and then I started to interpret those events through Hushpuppy."
It was in the editing room, Zeitlin says, that Beasts took on a dreamier quality.
"It was always a story about a little girl losing her place and trying to survive that," he says. "There was a process of getting myself into her head more and more over the course of making it, which changed the way things were articulated. There was more information that we shot, but we stripped it all out to leave you purely in Hushpuppy's consciousness."
The result is something that's often quite beautiful, earning the film cinematography honors at Sundance and Cannes. It's also sometimes maddening, which might be why it also took the Grand Jury Dramatic Award at Sundance, too. But Zeitlin says that's sort of the idea. The film is from the perspective of a 6-year-old, and it isn't that 6-year-olds don't understand what's going on around them; it's that they understand things differently than an adult would.
"There are a lot of things in the film that are not explained," Zeitlin says. "We don't give you more information than Hushpuppy knows. Adults rule the world, and we look down on children in a lot of ways. I definitely wanted to make a film where the adults look up to a child, and her ability to see through a lot of the clutter. Hushpuppy sees emotions, and she latches on to emotions and feelings and a sense of right and wrong, in a way that gets cluttered when you get older."
Of course, there's also a lot in Beasts that's easy to translate. Enormous environmental catastrophe in Louisiana? Zeitlin never comes out and says "Katrina," and the film is stronger for it. Additionally, the work by Wallis and Henry is raw and real, the sort of performances that can come only from untrained actors. Neither of them had acted in anything before coming onto the project. And though sometimes it feels as muddy as the water that rises around them, Zeitlin says that when he started shooting, he hoped they'd be creating something that wasn't particularly straightforward.
"This film was a series of collaborations and chaotic things thrown into the mix, which we then chased as filmmakers," he says. "We wrote it very carefully and storyboarded it and all that, but the idea was always that those plans were going to come apart when they struck up against the reality of locations and actors and all the things that were infused to give it this real voice. I wanted it to test ideas that I had and themes that I wanted to learn about against a real world that knew about them better than me."
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