“Beasts of the Southern Wild” tracks a New Orleans father and daughter trying to survive after a nasty storm wipes out much of their neighborhood. But director Benh Zeitlin insists his film isn’t connected to Hurricane Katrina.
“I didn’t want to make a political film or a call to action film,” Zeitlin tells Big Hollywood. “My interest in this was much more emotional.”
“If I got caught up with Bush, Nagin, ‘drill now,’ all these political tropes that get sucked into the Katrina issue … people would take sides about it,” Zeitlin adds.
The only side in play with “Beasts” at the moment is just how many accolades fans can heap on the movie before Oscar season begins. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and the Golden Camera award at Cannes, and movie critics are lavishing the film with as many superlatives as they can muster.
Audiences bored by superheroes and movie reboots can bask in “Beasts,” a film which doesn’t feel like any feature that came before it. Zeitlin’s deeply moving story follows a six year-old girl named Hushpuppy (newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis) and her father (Dwight Henry, also making his film debut) trying to survive a devastating hurricane. The duo manages to escape on their own terms in a floating “bathtub,” but illness and societal pressures combine to harass them as they strive to live life on their own terms.
The director’s young lead barely made it through the first round of auditions, but from there she dazzled the crew with a focus he dubs “supernatural.”
“I love working with non-actors,” he says. “You’re much more directly working with their lives as a palette … connecting a moment in the film with specific events in their lives. Professional actors generate their own emotions.”
Part of the film’s mystique comes from not just Wallis’ performance but the dreamlike quality of her character arc. Zeitlin says he focused on his own ability to tap into a child-like state to help bring Hushpuppy’s saga to life.
But he had a little help.
“I think a lot about how I thought as a child,” he says. Young Wallis also allowed the first time director to steer the script back toward that youthful spirit he wanted to capture. Consider a moment when Hushpuppy considers an upsetting situation as her fault, the director says. The young actress told him during production that her character “would try to fix it.”
“It’s such a simple thing,” he says of her contributions to the filmmaking. “But it opened up the character … The mysticism that comes with being six, we brought that to the film.”
Hushpuppy and her father provide an unconventional pairing. He is often distant with her, and at one point he uses physical violence against her. But their bond pays homage to Zeitlin’s adopted home state of Louisiana.
“It’s a certain kind of father-daughter relationship, not one portrayed in films often,” the young director admits. “To me, it resonates with the type of love south Louisiana gives to its people … it’s a volatile, violent place. It will knock you down with a storm. It hurts you physically. But something it’s giving you internally that completes you.”
Follow Christian Toto on Twitter @TotoMovies