Last year, Jeff Nichols' terrific, unsettling Take Shelter told us a tale of climatic cataclysm as moody apocalypse — both psychological and terrestrial. Dark storms loomed, threatening the world with something that felt like retribution, for ignorance, for apathy, for failing to respect nature's dangerous majesty. Much like a storm itself, Take Shelter vibrated with a terrible beauty, something both dire and lovely, doomed but transcendent. And now this year — are we feeling more hopeful? — comes the Sundance Grand Jury winner Beasts of the Southern Wild (opening in select cities tomorrow, wider next month), another storm narrative that is no less transporting than its predecessor, but that replaces tingly, anxious foreboding with something approaching spiritual ecstasy. Where the hinted-at storms in Take Shelter promised stark finality, the disaster in Beasts of the Southern Wild is Noah's Flood as tragedy, yes, but as rejuvenation, too. A movie about the hum and thrum and dizzy wonder of life on Earth, Beasts of the Southern Wild creates a religion and myth cycle all its own.
Directed by first-time feature director Benh Zeitlin and co-written by playwright Lucy Alibar, Beasts is set in a fictional Southern Louisiana territory called the Bathtub. It's a dollop of swamp and soil that's cut off from the mainland, by distance and by an ugly, forbidding levee wall. The other side is a place of dryness and modern comfort, but the Bathtub is a relative wilderness populated by grizzled, forgotten people who live in shambling communal harmony with the thick and damp nature around them. Our main heroes are the hard-boozing but resourceful Wink and his young daughter Hushpuppy, a sternly loving pair who raise chickens, dogs, and pigs on their scrabbly parcel of land. Hushpuppy's mother "swam away" sometime in the past, and her father tends to hole himself up in his house (there are two structures on the property, one for Wink and one for Hushpuppy) or disappear without notice, so Hushpuppy is often alone. Well, though, she's not really alone. She's a child of nature, holding animals close to her ear and listening to their heartbeats (which we also hear, with vital, thumping grain, almost like a record) and trying to divine just what it is they're communicating. She informs us, in voice over, that usually they're simply saying they're hungry or have to poop, but other times these animals, all animals, us included, are saying something deeper and far more profound. Hushpuppy tells us that everything and everyone, all beasts, are connected, that the survival of the universe is hinged on everything having its place. She's only a child, six years old, but she speaks and knows like an old soul.
The film is not all metaphysical dreaminess, though. Trouble is brewing from the first frames of this fable, with ominous rumbles of thunder and shots of ice caps calving violently into the sea. Hushpuppy's teacher/priestess Miss Bathsheeba tells her pupils, after reminding them that all living things are "made of meat," about the aurochs of primitive days, fearsome animals that reduced human babies to mere food. We then see an aurochs frozen in ice that looks as though it is about to thaw. And thaw it does, sending a herd of the raging creatures toward the Bathtub, just as a roiling, Katrina-esque storm ravages the land, flooding the place and sending Hushpuppy and her father out on the Chevy pickup flatbed they've converted into a boat in search of other survivors. They do find a remnant community, and it's in the flooded ruins that the group sets up a second civilization, rebounding with drunken, hungry fever, rejoicing in the being alive of it all. More dark clouds loom as Wink's health begins to fail and the threat of forced evacuation becomes ever imminent, but there are still moments of primal celebration; these people till the earth of life and are glad to have their hands dirty, to have the food they just plucked out of the brown water now smeared on their faces. Zeitlin has created otherworldly spirits here, whose world, of course, is actually the one that we all live in, but from which so many of us are clinically, fastidiously removed.
As the title might suggest, there are many closeup shots of animals in the film, of crawfish and crabs squirming in big bacchanalian piles, of aurochs eyes and the gasp of a dying catfish. Zeitlin and his ace cinematographer Ben Richardson film the action with a lens that's matte and textured but that also lets in plenty of rushes of ethereal light. In one particularly lovely scene, the people of the Bathtub celebrate one of their many holidays, running around with sparklers, firing Roman candles into the air, reveling in the patches of dark sky they've suddenly lit up. The rambling, discovering camerawork of Terrence Malick would seem to be an influence here, but it's not a style that the film employs derivatively. Rather, all the wandering crucially lets us feel that we are truly encountering this mystical, allegorical place ourselves, learning the rules of its physics and ethics like visitors or, more aptly, pilgrims.
It's hard to articulate what Beasts of the Southern Wild is about exactly, but the overarching themes are certainly existential and pantheistic ones. It's also something of an early coming-of-age tale, a father and daughter story, and a rousing testament to the unique and incredibly dauntless spirit of the people of Louisiana -- who, between floods and oil spills, have suffered mightily but resiliently over the past few years. One could argue that in that sense it's a very patriotic movie, an ode to the scrappy and resourceful American spirit, but this is a film that's not terribly concerned with those particular borders. No, its interests lie in bigger and vaguer places, ones that are possibly only glimpsed or felt from within.
Lucky for us then that we can be present to witness these characters glimpse and feel, and lucky for the characters that they are played by the committed, organically gifted non-actors Dwight Henry and Quvenzhané Wallis, both Louisiana locals coaxed out of their lives and into this magical movie world. Henry has a handsome but weather-beaten face, and he gives Wink a hard, imposing fatherliness that eventually melts into weary affection. There's a touch of something off about Wink, he's not entirely there, but he is so fiercely committed to his community, his all-important sense of particular place in the world, that he wins you to his driven, maybe even blinkered cause. And Wallis, playing Hushpuppy with wise wide eyes and a glorious firework explosion of wild hair, is the find of the year, a tiny person who nonetheless commands attention with her firm magnetism and deeply connected vigor. How a child of six could so perfectly figure out just what Zeitlin was going for with his captured small moments of Hushpuppy communing with animals or gazing thoughtfully into the pearly middle distance defies explanation, but she is completely, beautifully instep with the film's idiosyncrasies and rhythms. You almost hope that Wallis doesn't work again, because she exists so wholly in this world that to see her elsewhere would shatter the grand illusion.
Really a mysterious, modern Whitman poem in film form, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a strange and stirring emotional and spiritual odyssey. When the movie's score, co-written by Brooklyn-based producer Dan Romer and Zeitlin, really gets going, soaring to orchestral heights as it runs alongside Hushpuppy through this liminal land between heaven and hell, the experience is enrapturing, the kind of swoon and swell we don't often get from tiny indies with serious themes. A billowing meditation on nature and existence, Beasts of the Southern Wild reminds us not just of the unlimited possibilities of outsider cinema, but of something true and intrinsic within ourselves. It will make you want to run outside and yell joyously at the sky. Maybe you should see it somewhere out in the country, if you're lucky enough to find a theater playing it all the way out there.