Staring down the Beasts

I’m a little late to the party, but last night I saw Beasts of the Southern Wild for the first time and, with the Oscars drawing nigh, this seems as good a time as any to write about it.

A. O. Scott, in his review for The New York Times, compared Beasts to The Tree of Life, and that’s a smart way in. I’m drawn to films that thoughtfully explore the father/son or mother/son relationship, which was one of the reasons I found Tree of Life so achingly resonant. I can’t remember seeing any films dealing in such a way with the relationship between a little girl and her father, but Beasts does so in a profound way—both micro and macro, local and universal—and it touched me at the core level typically reserved for my most prized “boyhood” films (E.T., Empire of the Sun, A.I.).

Beasts isn’t simply about the child/father relationship. I’m not sure what all it’s about. It’s a bit like Tree of Life in the way it captures—in an appropriately shaky, hazy style—the fleeting, fuzzy memories of being a child. Hushpuppy, the 6-year-old protagonist, narrates her refreshingly unpredictable story, about her baby days living alone with her ornery father in the fictional, low-lying Bathtub in Louisiana, celebrating a surplus of holidays with her odd and endearing community, of the torrents that flood their lives and funnel them together, and the desperate struggle to defy death and loneliness. It’s a strange yet familiar tale, as big as the universe and as tiny as Hushpuppy, soaked and deep-fried in distinctly cajun spices.

It’s also hilarious. Hushpuppy is an endlessly watchable half-pint, and her bayou-flavored dialogue is sweet and hysterical. The merry band of off-the-cuff characters who surround her add to the humor, as well as the pathos, and you’ll catch yourself laughing as much at the strange surprise of what comes out of their mouths as at the humor in the words themselves.

One of the film’s central strengths is its total, deep-seated authenticity. Even though this is a world I’m unfamiliar with, and one laced with bits of fantasy and “magic realism,” it feels startlingly real. It is documentarian not only in its handheld cinematography but in the full sense that we’ve stumbled into the everyday lives of actual, genuine people. There isn’t a trace of pretense, or staginess, or self-awareness. This was obviously a feat, since these are all actors (many of them amateur, yes, but all playing parts) and this story is a fiction. But it’s a feat miraculously achieved, and one that roots the poignant story and almost whimsical characters in the rich soil of real life.

Emotionally motored along by a sweet, earthy musical score (by director Benh Zeitlin and Dan Romer), Beasts of the Southern Wild transports us downstream back to childhood, and to its larger-than-life fears and conceptions about the world. It took me into a world as foreign as Oz but as familiar as Colorado, and dropped me into the heart of someone else’s story—tragic, silly, buoyant—that I believed from the first minute. To watch it is to read the diary of this little girl’s hilarious, fanciful, and affectingly sincere thoughts. Wading through the crab shells and the mud and the mess, you will want to hold her—and be held—and stare down the beasts on the bayou.