Everyone loves an Oscar underdog.
In recent years, films like ‘Little Miss Sunshine’, ‘Winter’s Bone’ and ‘District 9′ have fulfilled that role – independent movies that have garnered critical acclaim on the film festival circuit (usually at Sundance) and have been swept along by word of mouth into a Best Picture nomination.
This year, that movie is Benh Zeitlin’s ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ – a film whose production is almost as incredible as the story it tells.
‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ is the work of the New Orleans-based Court 13 which describes itself on its website as a “grassroots, independent filmmaking army – a collective of madcap artists and animators of junk that seek to tell huge stories out of small parts”.
Court 13 got its name from an abandoned squash court used as a base for its first work – 30-year-old Zeitlin’s stop motion claymation short, ‘egg’ which was based on the tale of ‘Moby Dick’. They were forced to move to the squash court when a fire marshall ruled the basement they were using was the worst fire hazard he had ever seen.
In its subsequent work, Court 13 has adopted in a series of short films and music videos a “do it yourself” approach to filmmaking – making use of real locations and discarded materials and showing an ability to improvise when each shoot has encountered problems.
Hurricane Katrina provided the inspiration for ‘Glory At Sea’ – a 25 minute film which drew from real life tales and real characters to tell the story of people who lost loved ones and eked out a living on Lake Pontchartrain, constructing boats out of any junk they could find.
Out of that acclaimed short film emerged ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ with the help of the Sundance Film Festival’s screenwriting, directing and producing labs – Zeitlin’s and Court 21′s first foray into feature films.
Shot on 16mm film on a minuscule budget of $1.8 million, it has already grossed $22 million around the world and scooped the Best Dramatic Film award for its premiere at the Sundance Festival in Utah, the Camera D’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and the Space Needle Prize for Best Director at the Seattle Film Festival.
That wave of acclaim has swept it into Hollywood’s biggest night, the Academy Awards, where it has been nominated in four categories – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar and most famously, Best Actress for nine year old Quvenzhané Wallis (the youngest ever actress to receive a Best Actress Oscar nomination).
Wallis, who was five when she was cast by Zeitlin, plays Hushpuppy who lives in the southern end of the Bayou in a makeshift village known as The Bathtub, with her hot tempered, hard drinking father Wink (also played by a newcomer, Dwight Henry).
The Bathtub is a ramshackle, self-sufficient community whose homes are made out of whatever material they get their hands on, whose meals consist of the chickens they raise or whatever fish and crabs they can catch, whose boats are constructed out of scrap metal and whose children are schooled in the art of survival in the event of the waters rising.
The inhabitants are warned that when the polar icecap melts, the rising waters will destroy the Bathtub and its ecosystem but they defiantly live there, with Wink, in particular, insisting they will survive.
Hushpuppy’s relationship with her father is tested when he goes missing and she has to fend for herself, only or him to return in a daze wearing a hospital gown and bracelet.
When she accidentally sets fire to her hut, Wink chases her out and drunkenly strikes her – only for her to floor him by punching him in the heart.
The absence of Hushpuppy’s mother haunts both her and Wink and she is determined to track her down.
But then the hurricane strikes, setting Hushpuppy and Wink on a remarkable, trippy journey through a devastated Louisiana.
Wink and Bathtub’s odyssey is reminiscent of Martin Sheen’s dazed Captain Benjamin Willard in Francis Coppola’s Vietnam War classic, ‘Apocalypse Now’.
There is no war, of course, but post-Katrina Louisiana resembles a war zone and Zeitlin delivers moments of surreal magic that immediately bring to mind Willard’s bizarre trek up the Nung River into Cambodia – the fireworks festival at the start of the movie, a bayou bar where hurricane survivors hang out, the sinister hum of a helicopter prior to the evacuation of the bayou and a floating bordello.
‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ is an inventive feature directorial debut by Zeitlin and it is all the more impressive because of the budget constraints Court 13′s cast and crew are operating within.
The movie’s rough edged, low budget feel is indeed a big part of its charm and, as any cinema buff will tell you, there’s nothing quite like going to an independent film whose cast and director you have never encountered before and being knocked off your seat.
While much has been written about Quvenzhané Wallis’s performance, the truth is Dwight Henry’s performance is equally impressive for a debut actor.
As Hushpuppy, Wallis indeed does a remarkable job for such a young child actor, carrying the movie as a character and as a narrator and thoroughly deserves her Oscar nomination.
But Henry is also heartbreaking as the tormented Wink, defiantly standing up to nature, haunted by the absence of Hushpuppy’s mother who he deeply loved and harbouring another devastating secret.
With the help of Ben Richardson’s improvised cinematography and a smart script crafted with Lucy Alibar, Zeitlin’s movie recalls literary classics such as Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’, Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’ and Mark Twain’s ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’.
But at its best, ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ also resembles the transcendental cinema of Terrence Malick – particular with its use of landscape to reflect much bigger, spiritual themes.
As Hollywood salutes its filmmakers at the Oscars, is refreshing to see Benh Zeitlin and Court 13 take their place at cinema’s top table.
But it will also be fascinating to see if Zeitlin and his colleagues can retain their independent, do it yourself spirit when Hollywood production companies come a knocking on their door, inevitably waving larger cheques.
‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ was released on DVD in the UK and Ireland on February 11, 2013.