Ever been asked the question, “What would you do with a million dollars?” Most of us have come up with countless answers, but are still waiting for the check. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” director Benh Zeitlin put the one and a half million dollars he raised to the best use possible when working on this amazing film.
Garnering critical acclaim at what seems like a record pace, especially after some great recognition at Cannes and Sundance, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” deserves all the praise it can possibly have heaped on it. It was purchased by Fox Searchlight as a result of its showing at Sundance.
The film runs on raw emotion shouldered heavily by the lead character, Hushpuppy (played by Quvenzhané Wallis) who is dealing with her home area (called “The Bathtub”) at risk of drowning. At the same time, the health of her father, Wink (played by Dwight Henry), is deteriorating rapidly. All while prehistoric, mythological creatures called aurochs (played by trained wild boars) are approaching with the threat of destroying everything in their path.
To train the wild boars, Zeitlin and his crew raised them from near birth and used popcorn to train them to sit, run, stop, run and turn around. “We basically taught them how to act,” said Zeitlin.
The success of the film lies mainly in director Zeitlin possessing the amazing ability to understand the nitty gritty, goodness, badness, ugliness and beauty of the characters in the story.
The show stealer is hands down six-year-old Wallis. Simply put, she’s a cinematic force to be reckoned with. Handpicked out of 4,000 applicants for the role of Hushpuppy, Zeitlin calls her “an amazing little creature.”
“She’s probably the mature one of the two us,” he added.
You would have a hard time guessing she’s never acted before. Zeitlin believes this “speaks to what a great actress she is.”
If there’s any justice in the movie world, Wallis will be on the scene for many years to come. She’s the loudest, baddest, spiciest Hushpuppy I’ve ever encountered.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is also Henry’s first role. Henry is the current owner of The Buttermilk Drop Cafe in New Orleans. He used to own Henry’s Bakery in the Marigny. He actually owes his role in the film to Henry’s Bakery.
The bakery was conveniently located across the street from the casting agency used for the film. Henry said the agency would often put up casting audition flyers in the bakery. One day, he decided to try out for a role. A role that he would eventually land — Wink in “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
However, he found out he got the role two days after opening The Buttermilk Drop Cafe so he declined. In all, he would turn the role down three times before Zeitlin finally convinced him to accept.
“Benh saw things in me I didn’t see in myself,” said Henry.
“Dwight really brought his life to this part in a way no one from outside [Louisiana] could,” said Zeitlin. “There were people with more experience, but no one who could play the role as well.”
Henry, Zeitlin and acting coaches spent many late nights at The Buttermilk Drop Cafe rehearsing lines, editing scripts and polishing the film, often while Henry was in the process of baking.
After seeing the film and hearing from Henry and Zeitlin, you can feel the pride and emotion they both invested in making the film. Needless to say, their efforts paid off in the best possible way with such a brilliant film. There’s a Terrence Malick feel to the cinematography, but Zeitlin’s storytelling ability separates him from his elder in this particular film.
Maybe I’m biased because the film was shot near New Orleans, but this is a cinematic gem in the form of a great story. I’ve always believed great stories leave you wanting more and “Beast of the Southern Wild” left me satisfied, but wanting more in the best possible way.
Go see this movie! It exposes the gamut of human emotions all in just 91 minutes. Fortunately, for us Louisianans we understand the full spectrum of human emotions, know how to roll with the punches, and most importantly, celebrate.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is the perfect culmination of all these elements. It’s a bittersweet celebration of life on full display.
All photos courtesy of Fox Searchlight.