Sundance Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild

A myth is brewing. A storm is a-coming. The beasts are rising. A radical work of cinematic passion, Beasts of the Southern Wild does what cinema was made to do: dazzle, inspire, confound.

Benh Zeitlin and his production family Court 13 have created a fever dream film that blows mainstream 3D out of the murky waters—this film hits on six senses: the sparkling images of water, fire and muscle; the tactile feel of the banged together boats and abodes; the luscious taste of crab and gator and saltwater and beer; the overwhelming soundscape of song, thunder and heartbeats; the sweet smell of the swamp. Beasts of the Southern Wild is the human-scale mythological answer to the vast meaninglessness of Hollywood’s CGI monster armies and digitally rendered alternative worlds. This world is real. These people are there.

Rooftop Films (in conjunction with Eastern Effects) gave a grant to Beasts, and I visited the Louisiana locations during filming. It was like a Fitzcarraldo-era Werner Herzog set, only everyone was having fun. Protest parades, hospital rebellions, island-wide parties were staged with gusto by every available hand—and there were many. Instead of building a houseboat set on land and faking the floating, I saw art department kids waist-deep in swamp water building a boat that actually floated. Rather than computer animate some impossible animals, I watched as the team trained and costumed mysterious real animals (they have asked me to keep secret). Instead of setting a table with easy-to-clean, odorless craypaper crustaceans, the team had us shelling and cooking real crabs and crawfish (salvaged from some of the last harvests in post BP-oil spill waters).

Because when I say this world was real, I mean this production really meant something to cast and crew making it. I felt it on set and you can sense it on screen: from Katrina to the oil spill to an ever-homogenizing culture, these locals’ Bayou way of life is being threatened. These Beasts are fighting back.

As with many ancient myths, there’s not a lot of intricate psychologizing here, done with detailed dialogue and rationalized performances. There’s not a clear A+B = C plotline, nor a tidy conclusion. What you have is a constant string of epic scenes. A swelling crescendo of emotions, riotous laughter, focused rage, brutal tenderness. And lyric poetry that lets loose an ideal of imagination. Everything has its place in the universe. Hold on. Hold on to yours.

(All photos except for top are unofficial production stills by the author.)