"Once was a Hushpuppy who lived with her Daddy in the Bathtub" - this sentence alone is more than enough to explain where Benh Zeitlin's debut feature, the tale of a small, impoverished community surviving disaster, is coming from: the mythical poetry of American rural story-telling, the tradition of strong, self-reliant pioneers struggling against all the odds stacked against them. Beasts of the Southern Wild also invokes, among many other references, Scout Finch's first-person narration in another tale of childhood, To Kill a Mockingbird: the story (adapted from a stage play by Lucy Alibar) is told squarely through the eyes of a child, precocious six-year-old moppet Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), living with his erratic, alcoholic father (Dwight Henry) in a makeshift riverine Louisiana community vulnerable to the weather. When a once-in-a-lifetime storm (with intimations of hurricane Katrina) swamps and razes the Bathtub, the film sees it and the follow-up events through her wide-eyed, fanciful transfigurations of reality, punctuated by the mythical aurochs released from the eternal ices to rumble towards the Bathtub.

     Placing a whole film on the shoulders of an untried child actress (the remarkable Ms. Wallis was five when she auditioned and nine when the film was released) was risk enough, but Mr. Zeitlin, an East Coast man working within a loose collective of artists and filmmakers based in Louisiana, piled it on by opting for a style that could be defined as fabulist, magical realism, invoking at the same time the innocence of early Spielberg films, the bleak, brutal ruralism of younger filmmakers such as David Gordon Green or Lance Hammer, and the lyrical poetry of Terrence Malick. The latter's trademark of quasi-mystical communion with nature is prominently displayed here, only matched to an oppressive sense of Old South doom, giving Beasts of the Southern Wild an odd push-pull dynamic.

     At heart, though, this is - like To Kill a Mockingbird, only writ larger and more fanciful, couched in a surreal catastrophe mode - a film about growing up and facing reality. Hushpuppy has to deal with a changing world around her and with the potentially fatal illness of her father, with Mr. Zeitlin shooting it as a rite of passage in the heightened mode of an ADD-afflicted child discovering the world around her; the poster image of fireworks is therefore particularly apt to the film's sweeping, quasi-epic mood of constant, over-wringing emotional climaxes. Among all that has been said and written about it, though, there's one thing not many people have noticed: just how much Mr. Zeitlin is in control of his work and of his message. Whether you like the film or not, it's undeniable that what you see here is exactly what the director was aiming at - a simultaneously dark and celebratory film about the end of childhood. Whether Mr. Zeitlin will ever do something as powerful as this is besides the point: Beasts of the Southern Wild exists in its own sphere, in its own universe. In its own Bathtub.

Cast: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Screenplay: Lucy Alibar, Mr. Zeitlin, from the stage play by Ms. Alibar, Juicy and Delicious
Cinematography: Ben Richardson
Music: Dan Romer, Mr. Zeitlin
Designer: Alex di Gerlando
Costumes: Stephani Lewis
Editors: Crockett Doob, Affonso Gonçalves
Producers: Dan Janvey, Josh Penn, Michael Gottwald (Cinereach Productions and Court 13 in association with Journeyman Pictures, The San Francisco Film Society and the Kenneth Rainin Foundation)
USA, 2012, 93 minutes

Screened: Distributor advance press screening, Cinema City Classic Alvalade 1 (Lisbon), January 24th 2013


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