Beasts of the Southern Wild: Benh Zeitlin’s Poetic, Impressive Directing Debut

Beasts_of_the_Southern_Wild_posterPoetic without being pretentious, evocative without being nostalgic, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is one of the highlight of this year’s American independent cinema.

It’ a haunting yet ultimately optimistic feature about a locale, a lifestyle and characters that very few people know about, or are even aware of their existence.

Our Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

Announcing the impressive feature debut of the young director Benh Zeitlin,  “Beasts of the Southern Wild” deservedly won the Jury top prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Fest, where it world premiered to rapturous response in January.

Since then, the movie has played at the prestigious Cannes Film Fest (in the Certain Regard series, where it won an award).

The tale, scripted by playwright Lucy Alibar and Zeitlin, based on the former’s stage play “Juicy and Delicious,” is set in an isolated and secluded milieu, the forgotten bayou community, cut off from the rest of the world by a sprawling levee.

The protagonist is Hushpuppy, a young girl around 6 (Quvenzhané Wallis), who seems to be on the brink of becoming an orphan.  Boasting optimism, which characterizes naïve children, and enviable imagination that knows no limits, she believes that the natural order is in balance with the universe until a fierce storm changes her reality.

beasts_of_the_southern_wild_7Naturally intelligent and resourceful way beyond her biological age, she is devoted to one goal, repair her “world,” in its physical, social, and cultural elements, in order to save her ailing father and sinking home.

But how does she accomplish these admittedly impossible tasks, while learning to fight, overcome, and survive all kinds of catastrophes, both nature and man-made.

Sharply observed in its deliberately narrow focus, the film follows Hushpuppy, documenting her various activities, small and big, manageable as well momentous and impossible.  In the course of the narrative, she takes on rising waters, a sinking village, changing times, some prehistoric creatures—in short, a whole universe that she courageously tries to keep with her sheer force of spirit and incredible resilience.  Though some of the obstacles are objectively insurmountable, no task is “impossible” as far as Hushhappy is concerned, and each deserves her full attention and the resources she possesses to tackle them.

Shot on location in the coasts of Louisiana, the film is cast with local non-actors in the lead roles.

Beasts_of_the_Southern_Wild_1-300x168“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a low-budget film that arrived at the Sundance Film Fest “out of nowhere” (so to speak), a highly personal, passionate (even obsessive) project, which is hand-made, fiercely imaginative, and truly an underdog.  It’s the kind of film that critics always look for–a real discovery.

After playing at film festivals, it was released on June 27, 2012, in New York and Los Angeles, and later distribution was expanded.

A considerable commercial success, the film earned $23 million at the box-office, against a budget of less than $2 million.

Oscar Context:

Beasts of the Southern Wild was nominated for four Academy Awards:

Best Picture

Best Director (Benh Zeitlin)

Best Adapted Screenplay (Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin)

Best Actress (Quvenzhané Wallis). (Wallis, only 9) became the youngest Best Actress nominee in history.

Oscar Awards:


Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy
Dwight Henry as Wink
Levy Easterly as Jean Battiste
Philip Lawrence as Dr. Maloney
Gina Montana as Miss Bathsheba
Lowell Landes as Walrus
Jonshel Alexander as Joy Strong
Marilyn Barbarin as Cabaret singer
Kaliana Brower as T-Lou
Nicholas Clark as Sticks
Henry D. Coleman as Peter


Directed by Benh Zeitlin
Produced by Dan Janvey, Josh Penn, Michael Gottwald
Screenplay by Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin, based on Juicy and Delicious by Lucy Alibar
Music by Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin
Cinematography: Ben Richardson
Edited by Crockett Doob, Affonso Gonçalves
Production company: Cinereach, Court 13, Journeyman Pictures
Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures
Release date: January 20, 2012 (Sundance Fest); June 27, 2012 (US)
Running time: 93 minutes
Budget: $1.8 million
Box office: $23.3 million