Beasts of the Southern Wild is a miracle. Cinema is dead. Long live cinema.
Let us first dispose of possible critiques, reluctantly and without antagonism, in an effort to cast aside distractions: This is a film that undoubtedly reaps the benefits of a wildly charming 8 year-old lead; it has dicey attitudes towards race and gender and could reasonably be accused of deploying the Magical Negro; its narrative will strike some as fractured and flimsy; its characters have silly names and lead a mythical existence in a world that erratically swings between fantasy and reality; it is grandiose.
Set aside these deficits or, worse, tried-and-true manipulations and allow yourself an unencumbered experience, and what you have now, plainly, is triumph. It speaks a cinematic language that is rare and true. It engages some of our loftiest themes: survival, freedom, remote and unseen danger, the sins of our fathers. Its dialogue does not exist to service the plot but emerges organically from the elements of the film. The scenes are not intended simply to move us forward but are a collection of holy moments, one beautiful unaided moment after another, coalesced as called for by the order of the universe.
This film does not tug at the human spirit; it recreates it. Benh Zeitlin, the central figure of the New Orleans-based collective behind Beasts of the Southern Wild, who is not only the film’s director but co-wrote and co-scored as well, spoke to the process of its creation at a Q&A at Sunshine Cinema on 8/16. It goes a long way towards explaining the film’s soul. Zeitlin shared with the crowd that the processes of writing, casting, rehearsing, location scouting, and financing were all more or less happening simultaneously, an open-hearted approach that has not only survived but thrived as a consequence of Zeitlin’s vision, culminating in a seven-week shoot at three primary locations: pre-storm, storm, and post-storm. Anecdotally, Zeitlin’s sister’s house, a key location in the film, was torn down and rebuilt for each of the three locations.
Outside of its obvious charm, this serves to demonstrate that Beasts of the Southern Wild was a grassroots filmmaking effort to its core. It existed in, of, and by its environment, both embracing our milieu and boldly propelling it forward.
This article makes no specific mention of Hushpuppy, the Bathtub, or the unfrozen aurochs. Their descriptions can be found elsewhere, or better yet, by watching and experiencing for yourself. The charm of the film’s motifs speaks to the unique collective voice of Zeitlin, Court 13, the city of New Orleans, and others but is almost beside the point. Here we have a voice for the future, a work that can exist only in this medium, and a spiritual descendant of Terrence Malick, steeped in the history and principles of cinema.
It is conceivable that we are in the earliest phases of postmodernism’s unravelling. Mired in irony and self-awareness, what we could really use now is expression that is earnest, worldly, and plain, a forthright dismissal of postmodernism’s negative symptoms with an ingrained understanding of its positive ones. Beasts of the Southern Wild fits this description. With any luck, it will be one of our earliest strides towards a new era of cinema.