LITTLE ROCK There is a scene near the end of director Benh Zeitlin’s fantastic feature debut, Beasts of the Southern Wild, where the beasts in question - dreamlike apparitions called Aurouchs that resemble giant wild boars - long in pursuit of the film’s female protagonist who lives on a remote island off the coast of Louisiana, have finally lined her up in their sights.
They charge the initially terrified girl and she begins to run frantically before suddenly coming to her senses and stopping. Instead of cowering, she turns and faces them, daring them to draw closer. Shocked, the beasts stop their charge and recoil, cowed, as it were, by their quarry’s unexpected grit and fire. At this point, we should probably mention the girl in possession of such fierce inner strength is all of 6 years old.
Her name is Hushpuppy, and as played by the marvelous youngster Quvenzhane Wallis, she is perhaps - in Hollywood’s endless parade of vainglorious comic book characters in tights, webs and capes - the closest we ever get to seeing a truly uplifting superhero this summer. Zeitlin (who co-wrote the script with longtime friend Lucy Alibar), himself a young director making his first feature, knew what he was looking for in his far-flung casting search for Hushpuppy; he just couldn’t find the girl to play her.
That is until, after nearly 4,000 girls, he happened upon young Quvenzhane, just 5 years old at the time of her audition.
Her youth would have presented a different kind of problem for the production, explains Zeitlin, except he and his production team had already reconsidered the age of Hushpuppy.
“Originally in the script, the character is written to be 10,” he recalls, “just because we thought we’d be able to find an actor able to actually carry the entire film, but as we did our auditions, we realized that the voice of our character and the way she thinks of the world, as we saw all these kids, it was clear that her actual age was 6. So, it was a bit of a horrifying realization.”
The reason being the incredibly different worldview between the two age groups.
“The movie is so much about things dying, both her father and her place,” Zeitlin says. “I remember being 6. I don’t think I understood what death exactly was. You know, I’d have pets that would die and I just would imagine them in some other place. She’s still exploring those concepts and she doesn’t have a rigid notion of what they mean yet.”
In other words, Hushpuppy is young enough to not differentiate between metaphor and reality. Like William Faulkner’s young character, Vardaman Bundren, in As I Lay Dying (“My mother is a fish”), there is no disconnect of consciousness, be it real or surreal.
“To me,” Zeitlin continues, “[it’s] a realistic film from the point of view of a 6-year-old. When you’re 6 you don’t really view reality and fantasy as two separate realms. Those sides of your life blend into one another in a much more visceral way than they probably do when you’re an adult.”
It’s a distinction lost to some critics and fans of the film, who keep talking about its “magical realism,” a description that strikes Zeitlin as misguided. “I mean, magical realism is South American,” he says. “You know there’s a whole thing that magical realism is that this is not.”
What it is, in its depiction of a tight knit Southern community under siege from the elements (Hurricane Katrina) and a government determined to “take care” of the inhabitants by forcibly removing them from their homesteads and taking them to makeshift mainland shelters, is a battle between the forces of nature and the human beings that strive endlessly to control it.
It is somehow fitting, then,that the main perspective comes from a child young enough to not know any different from the ways of the natural world her father and her environment impart to her.
“I think that the way she thinks is, and the way that kids think, is often more enlightened than the way that adults think and it’s more uncluttered and it’s not powered by all these different things that we learn later in life,” Zeitlin continues. “I wanted to make a film that really respects her reality and her wisdom and doesn’t look at it as undereducated. It actually has an increased sincerity, an increased enlightenment because of the simplicity with which she thinks about certain things.”
It also helped with the rest of Zeitlin’s inexperienced cast - including Hushpuppy’s father, Wink, played by Dwight Henry, a nonactor whom Zeitlin discovered solely because he ran the bakery across the street from the school where they were holding auditions for the children - that the director welcomed everyone’s collaborative input into the characters and dialogue.
And none more so than for young Quvenzhane.
“Before we even touched the script,” he says, “we would talk about the central concepts for the story: strong animals and weak animals and what they meant and how they behaved and different principles of nature. We talked about heartbeats and what they meant and talked about the end of the world and what it was going to be like and things like that. All those interviews sort of become language that ends up in the movie. There was an evolution of the language and then of the ideas and what Hushpuppy’s perspective was.”
One thing Zeitlin didn’t have to work on was the fierceness of his young actress. In some ways, the film could almost play as the origin story of new kind of superhero, one so in tune with the natural world and her place in it that nothing, not even supernatural wild boars, can dare to knock her down.
Zeitlin, whose parents are urban folklorists, doesn’t demure from the possibility.
“She starts off as a very strong and ferocious creature and then these obstacles and battles that she’s fighting is where she needs to gain this wisdom and emotional strength, gain these very intangible parts of herself that complete her journey,” he says. “It is not a traditional folk story, but she is up against very specific obstacles and all these internal things that have to do with her becoming this wise woman. I do think of her as a tiny little folk hero, for sure.”
MovieStyle, Pages 31 on 08/03/2012
Print Headline: Girl ferociously tackles role as hero