Sundance 2012: 'Beasts' sparks a flood of strong reaction
Director Benh Zeitlin moved to New Orleans in 2006 to make the post-Katrina short film "Glory at Sea," assuming he'd stay in Louisiana for only a few months. Six years later, the filmmaker is still there — and anyone who saw Zeitlin's first feature, the vaguely apocalyptic Sundance dramatic competition entry "Beasts of the Southern Wild," could see why.
As much a love letter to a dying part of local Louisiana culture — the typically impoverished families living in quickly disappearing land near the state's southern tip — as a magically realistic look at a young daughter's fierce love of her dying father, "Beasts" is the kind of movie that tends to win Sundance's grand jury prize: creatively ambitious, narratively experimental and something you'd never see coming from a major studio. In a telling sign, several top Hollywood agents attended the film's first screening Friday afternoon, eager to sign the director (who also co-wrote "Beasts" and its score) to their agencies.
Populated almost exclusively by non-professional actors and loosely based on the play "Juicy and Delicious" by co-screenwriter Lucy Alibar, "Beasts" unfolds in a netherworld called the Bathtub, a bayou community cut off from civilization by a levee.
In this outpost at the tip of the country, 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis, found in a Houma elementary school) walks among semi-feral animals in living conditions one small step from homlessness. Her father, Wink (Dwight Henry, discovered in a bakery), is part of the Bathtub's live-free-or-die community, and while his single-parent tactics are more than a bit unconventional (Hushpuppy basically raises herself), it's apparent he cares deeply for his daughter.
Clearly shaped not only by Katrina but also by climate change, the story quickly shifts toward an end-of-days scenario. The water levels start to rise, and giant pig-like animals are thawed from arctic ice, marching toward the Bathtub like oversized excavators. But Hushpuppy, like the rest of the residents, isn't about to abandon her home.
"I wanted to make a film about holding on to things that are important," Zeitlin said after the screening. "You have to stand by the things that made you."
The production found its leading girl from among some 3,500 candidates, and even if Wallis doesn't go on to have an acting career, it's a remarkably assured debut. At one point in the story, her father calls her a "beast," and she's certainly that.
"She just had this poise and warrior mentality," said Zeitlin, adding that he and Alibar reworked the script after casting her. "Everything about the movie changed. It [became] about her internal strength."
Henry is now back to baking in his new establishment, the apparently very tasty Buttermilk Drop Bakery & Cafe. "I never acted a day in my life," he said, explaining that he would work with acting teachers from midnight to 6 a.m. as he kneaded bread and made muffins. "They just believed in me."
Sundance's first audience to see the film seemed equally invested in it, giving a rousing ovation. Now it has to find a buyer so that this uniquely Sundance look at Louisiana can be seen across the nation.
— John Horn
Photo: Quvenzhané Wallis in "Beasts of the Southern Wild." Credit: Jess Pinkham.