Welcome to the Bathtub, a small community on the Louisiana delta on the wrong side of the levee. Six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvanzhané Wallis) lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry). Her mother has departed. Wink tries to prepare his duaghter foe how harsh and unforgiving the universe is, so she is preoccupied with the world coming to an end, with temperatures rising and icecaps melting and the return of huge prehistoric creatures called aurochs...
There's a Little Movie That Could – and That Did – most years. In 2012 it was this feature debut from New York-born director Benh Zeitlin. Based on Lucy Alibar's play Juicy and Delicious (Alibar and Zeitlin cowrote the screenplay) and premiering at the Sundance Festival, it won the Grand Jury Prize. Just over a year later, as I write this it is about half a day away from finding out if it is won the Best Picture Oscar, or for Best Director or for Best Adapted Screenplay, or if its young star, Quvenzhané Wallis, has converted her nomination as Best Actress (for which she is the youngest-ever nominee) to a win.
Inevitably there has been a backlash, but I'm not about to join in. While its influences are obvious – and I'll return to that in a moment – I still found Beasts an impressive film. And it is film, not the digital-capture which is probably the default medium for tiny-budget indies these days. It was shot in Super 16mm, showing that there is still life in that format yet. Southern-States US magic realism, may be an acquired taste for some – and the film doesn't entirely avoid a sense of cultural appropriation by filmmakers not from the region they depict – but the film does have a strength and conviction, anchored by Wallis's remarkable lead performance, that carries you along. The gritty cinematography (Ben Richardson) and the music score (Dan Romer and Zeitlin) are points in its favour too.
The presiding deity in Beasts is Terrence Malick, and it's clear that Zeitlin is heavily under his influence. The use of a voiceover by a young and/or naïve character immediately recalls Badlands and Days of Heaven, and as in those films, the voice is a female one. There's also a strong sense of landscape, and the sense of place is so well evoked that it becomes overpowering. As in Malick's work, the characters are very much figures in a landscape and the landscape is a major character in the film. And like Malick, Zeitlin has a keen eye for the part that insects – and other invertebrates – play in most landscapes. These things take precedence over the plot, and what we are meant to do is to see the world through Hushpuppy's eyes for the hour and a half that the film is on.
With an actor quite so young, there are always questions as to how much of the performance comes from her and how much is due to the influence of a particularly sensitive director. While she's a few years older than Brigitte Fossey in Jeux interdits, for example, Quvenzhané Wallis's performance does I feel deserve to be mentioned alongside hers. Dwight Henry does well as Wink, but it's not his show. The rest of the cast is made up of local non-professionals.
It remains to be seen how Zeitlin and Wallis follow this up, whether this will be a permanent highpoint of their careers or the start of more distinguished work. Only time will tell.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is released by StudioCanal on a dual-layered DVD encoded for Region 2 only. There is also a Blu-ray release, not supplied for review, and affiliate links for that edition can be found here. The DVD begins with trailers for other StudioCanal releases - Rust and Bone, Searching for Sugar Man and Sightseers, but these can be skipped.
The DVD transfer is in the original ratio of 1.85:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. As I mention above, Beasts was shot in Super 16mm, so there's plenty of grain, which contributes to the deliberately raw, unslick look Zeitlin gave the film. I did see this in a cinema (projected in DCP, inevitably, not from film) and this DVD does look very much like what I saw then. Given that this is a very new film, that's the least you can expect. Shadow detail is a bit lacking, but that's due to the method and circumstances of the film's making.
The soundtrack is available in Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround (2.0). The track is quite immersive, with lots of ambience on the surrounds, which come into their own every time Romer and Zeitlin's main theme kicks in. The subwoofer contributes to a gas explosion and Hushpuppy's fantasies of calving glaciers. Subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing – a rarity on an English-language StudioCanal DVD, so praise is due for their inclusion. There is also an audio-descriptive 2.0 track.
There are several extras, which have a Play All option. They begin with the making-of documentary (21:32), which is the usual mixture of interviews, on-set footage and film extracts, though this is also narrated, by Terrance McKnight. It begins with Zeitlin and his cowriter Lucy Alibar moving to the area of Terrebonne Parish in Louisiana We see extracts from Quvenzhané Wallis's screen test and her being told she had the part. Dwight Henry was found closer to home, running a bakery across the road from the production office in New Orleans. Even such a low-budget indie involves visual effects, and we see how the aurochs came into being. The featurette ends with the Sundance premiere.
“Casting” (14:59) follows, which are Dwight Henry and Quvenzhané Wallis's screen tests. Then we have deleted scenes (13:25) with a commentary by Benh Zeitlin. The scenes were removed for many of the usual reasons, such as pacing, or for taking the film too far away from the relationship between Wink and Hushpuppy, which was at the heart of the film. Also removed was a subplot where Hushpuppy joins a gang of young girls and some extraneous comic relief.
“Glory at Sea” (24:41) is a short film that Zeitlin made in 2008. It's remarkable how much of the style and concerns of the later feature are already in place: the use of a young girl's voiceover, the emphasis on water and the use of a small isolated bayou community. Even the onscreen size of the title card is the same. It does have a somewhat slicker look than Beasts does, which is not necessarily to its advantage.
Finally, there is the theatrical trailer (1:54).