Truth and heart aplenty are to be found in this enthralling, rich portrait of Louisiana by first time director Benh Zeitlin and like Harper Lee with To Kill a Mockingbird, he uses the eyes of an eight year old girl of some character to find and share them. Set in a fictional bayou community on the Isle de Charles Doucet, called “The Bathtub” by it’s residents, in the Gulf of Mexico, Beasts follows Hushpuppy’s (Quevenzhane Wallis) attempts to understand her place in the universe, her Father’s anger and the natural world surrounding her before and after a Katrina-style storm engulfs The Bathtub.
Previous attempts to bring the horror of Katrina’s still open wound on America to the big screen have either been documentaries like Spike Lee’s searing and leviathan When the Levees Broke, or just a kind of attempt to shoehorn Katrina’s devastation into the background as a metaphor for modern America, as in In the Electric Mist or Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant. Beasts takes a brave stance, taking Katrina as an inevitability due to mankind’s detrimental effect on the earth. As Hushpuppy says in voiceover at the start; “The universe depends on everything fitting together just right, if one part busts, the whole busts…”
Into Hushpuppy’s life and dreams come visions of Aurochs, great tusked boars freed from the ever melting ice and sent to pursue her. They bristle and roar, crash through buildings, their breath steaming as they continue relentlessly toward The Bathtub and Hushpuppy. The Aurochs can be seen as an easy metaphor for the crushing power of nature, a potent reminder that life is eternally extinguished throughout this world’s brutal millennia or simply the fancies of a brave little girl, sorry not to have witnessed their visceral power.
The Bathtub’s ramshackle collection of shanty town style houses, cabins on stilts and homemade boats lends Beasts an otherworldly edge, the camera drifting and jerking around, showing nature and the modern world colliding. the children run free, street festivals are thrown weekly and everyone seems happier than the people who live in the “dry” world (New Orleans). When FEMA agents forcibly evacuate the Bathtub after the storm the residents end up in an aid centre, observing misery and suffering in a crowded, fluorescent tube lit, white building. Hushpuppy’s father takes no time in organizing a “jailbreak” and they return to their washed out, semi-destroyed homes, happier to at least have control over their own destiny.
Directed, scored and loosely scripted by Zeitlin (he admits to changing the whole dynamic of his film when Quvenzhane Wallis’ fearsome acting skills and force of personality became apparent), Beasts is that ultra rare…..beast. A film that is unlike any other and through sheer force of will (and a joyous score) imprints itself in your memory, simultaneously showcasing mankind’s tenderness and will to survive and the incredible toll our planet is taking to keep us here.
In the end we have watched Hushpuppy come to terms with the more complex cycles of life and we leave her there, walking into the future with her head held high, her extended family around her and a steely glint in her eyes. The film seems to ask why can’t America do the same?