Had I known that the heart breaks slowly, dismantling itself into unrecognizable plots of misery… had I known yet I would have loved you, your brash and insolent beauty, your heavy comedic face and knowledge of sweet delights, but from a distance I would have left you whole and wholly for the delectation of those who wanted more and cared less.

– Maya Angelou, And Still I Rise

The power of storytelling is something that is vastly underlooked in cinema. Storytelling in itself has become a forgotten art, lost amidst the rubble of advancing technology or overly convoluted plots. The tradition of storytelling is perhaps the most ancient form of humanity, passed down through generations via the oral tradition of preservation. Beasts of the Southern Wild is positioned directly within this framework of half-fable and half-parable, bound tightly to the form of a narrative which is interwoven with folklore, anthropology, and innocence. It is truly visionary in all senses, never faring on the side of predictable, but on the side of an original folklore set within the confines of modern struggle, travelling surely between the worlds of magical realism and human reality.

The film is deliciously and imaginatively constructed, with layer upon layer of meaning, as sediments of prehistoric rocks and cemented by “particles of the universe”: from a father/daughter relationship; to the binds of community; to insider/outsider perspectives (the unnerving sterility of the ‘civilised’ world compared to the wild tangle and comfort of the Bathtub); to the fragility of life and the inveterate instinct for survival; to one’s place in the universe. These are explored with startlingly acute and determined clarity by Hushpuppy, played by the sparkling gem that is Quvenzhané Wallis. She is the embodiment of undiminished spirit, a warrior portraying courage and wisdom beyond her years. Her narration never seems hackneyed or trite, but is imbued with all the potency and expectant optimism of a child prodding and searching the world around her. She is compelled to grow up in a startlingly short amount of time, but does so with all the defiance and certitude of her six years.

The resemblance between Beasts and Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are sprung to mind upon hearing of the former: similar thematic and artistic elements are shared between the two, but the former is truly a singular beast (pardon the pun). The thundering “wild things” here – the paleolithic Aurochs – represent the relentlessly brutal and dynamic cycle of ages past and the spectre of Hurricane Katrina; their presence hovers in the edge of Hushpuppy’s vision, until she is at last able to confront these prehistoric ghosts. It is a deeply organic and and naturalistic construction of a reality wrapped up in fantasy, sewn together with found and rusted materials, borrowing from religious symbolism, into a mythology all its own, complete with a soaring musical score. Beasts is truly the first modern fairytale, a deeply moving and lyrical piece of folk art that speaks to Koyaanisqatsi-esque philosophies and humanistic rationalisations of the universe. It is a film to be seen several times, each time sinking deeper into a new layer of the fantastical construction of Hushpuppy’s truth – for storytelling is a truth, a historical document of the life and times of people who find the heartbeat in every living thing.

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