Onstage after the film, I attended a Q&A with this debut director and his very young star. Benh Zeitlin that explained he needed to understand how a small child might view the apocalypse, and asked the then six year-old Quvenzhané Wallis what she would do. She said that she would ‘fix what was broken’ by going to bed early and doing her chores; in other words, by doing good. It helped him to change his approach developing a structure to a former comedic play about a boy and his father in the Louisiana basin, and turn it into a mythic worldview seen through a little girl’s eyes.
As a consequence, the story of a child seeing her world from the wrong side of the levee before and after the flood-storms feels acutely real even if its images are cataclysmic. Wallis plays Hushpuppy, a girl forced to be in tune with nature by the extreme way she and her dying father Wink live. He teaches her to punch a fish in the face to stun it, to tear crabs in half with her bare hands, to rage back and fight every step. Her fears surface in the form of the ice-age creatures that must be faced and subdued.
To her father this is merely a means of survival, a way of life he cannot let go no matter how wrong-headed it might be. Everything Hushpuppy does has the air of real danger about it; in the shack where she lives separately from Wink, she uses a blowlamp to start the gas stove and manages to burn the place down. She helps to dynamite the levee in order to get the waters to retreat, but all the water leaves behind is death and filth.
There are no professional actors in the film – Wink was found in the bakery opposite the production office – but virtually every scene involves Wallis, whose astoundingly naturalistic performance can only come from being six years old, and I would imagine will prove unrepeatable. So much so that her presence in the post-screening interview, where she was dressed in sparkly clothes and was self-assured on the subject of acting, proved very disconcerting.
There are elements of allegory and magical realism at work here, but what’s unique about Zeitlin’s vision is how he has melded them with the grainy, gritty reality of life lived in such an isolated community. In this, Wink and Hushpuppy aren’t far removed from scavengers on Indian dustheaps or natives in a lost jungle village. They throw whole chickens into fires, gut crocodiles and grab fistfuls of shrimp, feeling the heartbeats beneath their fingers, and when Hushpuppy punches her father on the chest, so strong is the belief in the power of this hands-on approach to life that she thinks she has killed him.
‘Beasts’ has come in from some cynical criticism in the UK, particularly from Sight & Sound, where the fact that it was made by a group of wealthy Jewish New York kids has suggested to some that it’s an idealised ‘back to nature’ world for urbanites – but in all honesty, who would want to live in this world? Hushpuppy’s dialogue was created by Wallis with the director and the cast, and Zeitlin has professed a desire to continue exploring Louisiana.
So don’t buy into the cynical view for now at least; that the film, financed by a collective, was made at all is marvellous. That they’ve come this close to making the year’s best debut is nothing short of a miracle.