Review by © Jane Freebury

Thousands of little girls were auditioned for the lead role in Beasts before the filmmakers found their Hushpuppy in Ouvenzhané Wallis.  Just  six years old during the shoot, she conveys a sense of indomitable spirit and has the bearing of a leader in the making, even though an occasional smile reveals that all her big teeth have not yet come through.

Although young, Hushpuppy lives on her own with mementoes of her absent mother around her. Besides herself, Hushpuppy has a few animals to care for, and she keeps an eye on her ailing dad Wink (Dwight Henry) who is not far away, just next door in fact. He tries to be fatherly with a ‘Don’t worry. I’m the man’ routine, but Hushpuppy knows, and he knows, she has to learn to look after herself.

The good thing is that there are friendly folk near at hand. The community, a mixture of black and white people, lives in the bayou known as Bathtub on the wrong side of an enormous levee that separates their homespun happiness from the steely efficiencies of the industrial complex on the other side. The people of Bathtub know how to party and know what’s best in life. Holidays, lots of fresh seafood, and rollicking good music.

It is not surprising to learn that the young writer/director Benh Zeitlin, formerly of New York, is now settled in New Orleans, a convert to its brand of joie de vivre. He says he finds fascinating the sense the community has that it lives on a precipice.

It’s is not so much hurricanes like Katrina that the people of Bathtub fear, its rising sea levels as global warming melts the polar ice. Hushpuppy and the other kids in her class, however, are not as afraid of this as of the ‘aurochs’ their teacher has told them about, a kind of mammoth tusked boar—a magic realist touch that seems to represent fear itself. Aurochs, altogether more frightening than Maurice Sendak’s ‘wild things’, will be released to roam again as their frozen tombs melt.

In the powerful film of the Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road, another father figure is afraid he can no longer protect his child. The main thing Wink wants as his own health fades is also for his child to survive, yet Zeitlin’s vision is not bleak and it insists on the vitality of characters who know best how to live in the first place, and on the power of a young child’s imagination.

Handheld and shot on 16mm like the ultimate home movie, Beasts is a genuine indie, and some.  Looking at the long list of community credits, it surely also represents something of the exuberant spirit of New Orleans.

In a capsule: A coming of age tale set in a community on the bayou in Mississippi on the wrong side of the levee.  Indie filmmaking at its best. Confident of its original vision and free of the constraints of its limited resources.

4 stars