One reason, perhaps, that there have been so many movies made about New Orleans is that the very geography of the city is the stuff of Shakespearean drama. The constant threat of annihilation, vibrancy in the face of fear, an electrifying inequality, a touch of hubris perhaps—it’s all there. Equally true is that in many cases these seductive narratives have all but obliterated the people who make New Orleans: New Orleanians.
This is the backdrop against which Beasts of the Southern Wild, the debut feature from director Benh Zeitlin and one of the most powerful movies ever made about the city, emerges. Zeitlin, a 29-year old filmmaker who moved there from Queens in 2004, is a member of Court 13, a community–based film collective headquartered near the French Quarter that has coalesced around what Zeitlin calls, “a code of honor.” It’s like an American Dogme 95. “The most fundamental idea behind our process,” Zeitlin explains, “is that we try to make the creation of the film mirror the reality of the actual story.”
That’s a tall order considering the magical realism of Beasts of the Southern Wild. The film unfolds in a fringe community of misfits called The Bathtub. Residents of The Bathtub live beyond the levee, effectively beyond the reach of either the laws of man or God and beyond the protection afforded the levee. It’s an enclave of beaten-up trailers, jerry-rigged boats, crab feasts, outcasts, and glorious bacchanals. There’s no money in The Bathtub, but as Zeitlin says, an “absence of money doesn’t mean poverty.” His film, executed on a shoestring budget, is proof.
The beating heart of The Bathtub and Beasts is a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) whose angelic face is fierce and feral and wise. Hushpuppy’s father, an alcoholic Thoreauvian saint named Wink (Dwight Henry), is dying, and as a storm approaches, ex- poses himself as a flawed, loving, noble, and failing man. There are no easy answers in the bayou—just beauty, ugliness, joy, and unease.
Henry and Wallis are just two of the many non-actors who populate the film and give it the feel of a Les Blank documentary. Scenes don’t have ends or beginnings; they seem to unfurl and the camera just happens to catch it. This is the fruit of Court 13’s process: the B- roll alone deserves an Oscar. But behind this nonchalance lies tremendous work. “We auditioned 4,000 girls before we found Quevenzhané,” says Zeitlin. As for Henry, a baker-by-trade whose Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Café is a Treme institution, he had to be convinced to act. “I don’t do no acting,” Henry says in his deep Louisiana drawl. “I’ve got my bakery. That’s my heart.” Happily, with the financial sup- port of the Sundance Institute, Zeitlin finally lured Henry from his flour and buttermilk.
The result is magical, but there are so many ellipses—throwaway shots of such arresting beauty, and loose ends of such force—a simple recitation of facts would ill-serve the viewer. Furthermore, true to the Court 13 credo, it’s not the conclusion of events but the unfolding of them that ennobles the movie. And the unfolding continues. Since it debuted at Sun- dance this year, the film has been widely acclaimed, and in May was shown at Cannes. But Henry doesn’t see movie stardom in his future. His words echo the spirit of Beasts and of Court 13 itself. “Material things,” he says, “don’t mean much to me.” It’s the animal spirit that counts.