Life matches art in "Beasts of the Southern Wild"

Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry play a girl and her father in mythical Delta community threatened by rising waters. JESS PINKHAM
Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry play a girl and her father in mythical Delta community threatened by rising waters. JESS PINKHAM
Posted: July 09, 2012

"Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub.”

So begins Beasts of the Southern Wild, director Benh Zeitlin's magic-realist fable about an endangered Louisiana bayou community infused with feral hope and pearlescent light. Close your eyes. Imagine a Maurice Sendak adventure alluding all at once to surviving the Flood, Hurricane Katrina, and climate change. Set it to a celestial zydeco score. Get the picture?

The film, opening Friday in Philadelphia, went through the roof at Sundance in January and took the Grand Jury prize. It touched the sky at Cannes in May, when Zeitlin won the "Camera d'Or" (rookie of the year award). He helmed the story written by his childhood friend, Lucy Alibar, and executed by Court 13, a collaborative founded by Zeitlin and friends at their alma mater, Wesleyan University. The group dedicates itself to making films as a community about communities. Beasts' story and its storytellers are firmly rooted in the belief that we're all the in same boat. In this case, it's a vessel threatened by the regeneration of prehistoric aurochs, those critters familiar from cave paintings.

Given Beasts' reception, its ship has come in. Members of its crew made a visit to Philadelphia in late June.

Anchoring this saga about "the Bathtub," a mythical Delta community threatened by rising waters, is Quvenzhané [say Kwah-vahn-JAHN-ay] Wallis, age 6 while filming and now 8, a half-pint of concentrated moxie. She plays Hushpuppy. Quven-, oh, just call her by her nickname, Nazie, won the role over 3,500 other contenders. What sealed the deal, she thinks, is that during the audition she didn't follow cue. She would not throw a teddy bear at the producer who told her to use him as target practice. She would not bring him food, told him he could fix his own darn breakfast. The youngest of four, Nazie hails from Houma, La., and clearly articulates the difference between playing pretend and acting. "Pretend is dressing up and playing at being someone else. Acting is being someone else," says the girl who in the film uses a blowtorch to ignite the pilot light of a stove.

In keeping with the spirit of Court 13, Nazie and Dwight Henry (who plays Wink, Hushpuppy's ailing father) are touring with Zeitlin to promote what Henry describes as "a uniquely collaborative experience about pulling together during disaster."

Henry, 49 and beanpole slim, is the baker/proprietor of the Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Café in New Orleans' Seventh Ward. "My place is across the street from Court 13's casting office. They used to come in for breakfast, we'd talk," Henry recalls. "They put up fliers about auditions in the bakery. Wanted to go, never had the chance."

Enraptured by Henry's hurricane lore — his first encounter was at age 2 in1965, when he clambered to the rooftop to keep his head above swollen waters during Hurricane Betsy — the casting director offered him a part. Three times Henry declined. How could he keep a business going and be an actor? When Zeitlin and the casting director assured him that they would work lines with him in the night kitchen while he baked during the wee hours, he agreed.

"I liked how Benh would show me dialogue and ask, ‘Tell me how you would say it.' " Henry was drawn to the film, he says, because "it emphasizes the importance of being self-sufficient and strong." He also liked the homey feeling on the set. "They may think that Court 13 is a company," he says. "But it's just a big old family." As he talks, Nazie does her best to distract him with whispers, tickles — and a whiff of her overripe ballerina flats. Among Henry's five children is a daughter Nazie's age. He is unruffled and affectionate.

Ominously, Henry remembers, Beasts' first day of production coincided with the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April, 2010. "Just like in the movie, we had to resolve and overcome."

"It was a bizarre life-matching-art experience, threatening Terrebonne Parish, where we were," says Zeitlin, 29. "We could see on the map that the oil was coming closer and closer. The marina where we were shooting was taken over by BP and we had to negotiate with them to get to our sets."

And so the son of folklorists dedicated to preserving culture started principal photography on a movie about the forces of nature threatening an isolated society as an industrial oil spill threatened access to the locations. Like the film's characters, they kept hope alive.

Not only did the process of making Beasts echo its story line, its DIY aesthetic is like that of Wink, who improvises a vessel by attaching a truck body to a wheezing outboard motor atop 50-gallon drums to keep it afloat. "Everybody on board wanted to do what was in the spirit of the movie," says Zeitlin.

"To tell these stories, we built a paintbrush that didn't exist before."

While no one would mistake the $1.5 million indie effort put together with spit and clothespins for a multiplex blockbuster, Beasts strikes a universal chord. "Believe me, none of us were thinking of international fame," Zeitlin muses. "It was a movie, not a product."

"If you're trying to anticipate what the marketplace wants to see, you're not speaking from your gut," he says. "We did this for the adventure, not to build our resumés." He did not anticipate that Beasts would have such an enthusiastic reception. (On only four screens its first week, it earned $169,000.)

Nazie eloquently describes the primal experience of watching the film. When she first saw it at Sundance she said, "It felt like it was someone else and me up there at the same time."

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