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Girl grapples with nature in folklore-infused 'Beasts'

Charles Ealy

Folklore permeates director Benh Zeitlin's "Beasts of the Southern Wild," which opens in Austin on Friday after an award-winning run on the festival circuit.

"Beasts" centers on a young girl and her ailing father who live in a coastal Louisiana region known simply as the Bathtub. The film has a profound sense of place, a deep appreciation of an unusual but natural lifestyle.

Nature, however, is literally threatening to swallow the home of Hushpuppy and her father, Wink. But, like their neighbors, they refuse to leave amid global warming and rising water levels. They fish and eat and drink and party, as generations have done, and no amount of outsider warnings and meddling will change their minds.

"I never thought about it being a piece of folklore when I started making the movie," Zeitlin says, "but it gradually sort of dawned on me that it was."

The folklore gene, it seems, is in Zeitlin's DNA.

His father, Steve Zeitlin, has a doctorate in folklore from the University of Pennsylvania and worked for the Smithsonian before becoming executive director and co-founder of City Lore, which aims to preserve New York's cultural heritage. His mother, Amanda Dargan, also has a doctorate in folklore from Penn and collaborated with her husband on "City Play," a photographic essay that examines the life of children on the streets of New York.

"I guess the folklore perspective got into me as a kid," Zeitlin says, "the feelings that the poets are the sideshow barkers and that what happens at the dinner table or in the streets is a form of art and the most important part of culture."

Those feelings come through loud and clear in "Beasts," as Zeitlin explores what it means to live on the sinking land of Louisiana. And it's hard not to think of the new movie as a post-Katrina narrative.

"There was this whole dialogue post-Katrina about rebuilding," Zeitlin says. "Some people said that it was ridiculous to rebuild. But I thought that was a ridiculous point of view, very condescending and lacking respect for why people hold on to their home with a fierceness. I wanted the movie to celebrate those who defy danger and want to hold on to something important."

Zeitlin, who grew up in New York, says he first visited New Orleans on a family trip when he was 12.

"The city haunted me, and I told my parents that I wanted to live there," he says. And when he graduated from Wesleyan University in 2004, he began to search for a place to make the short "Glory at Sea," which eventually played at the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival in 2008.

"I went to a bunch of different cities, looking for a location," Zeitlin says. "But I had friends in New Orleans, so I tried it out, and it took hold and transformed the film."

Since then, he has formed what he calls a grass-roots filmmaking collective known as Court 13, and "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is his debut feature.

It won the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival and went on to win the Camera d'Or for first-time features at the Cannes Film Festival. Now, it's getting rave reviews as it slowly opens in major cities across the United States.

Part of its success has to do with the mesmerizing performance by Quvenzhane (Kuh-VAHN-zuh-nay) Wallis as Hushpuppy. (If you're wondering, friends and family call her Nazie.)

"We looked at 4,000 kids in total, and there was a huge effort to try to find the right person for the part. The film was going to live or die on the casting," Zeitlin says.

Then he met Wallis when she walked into an audition in Houma, La. "She was 5 when she came in, and the auditions were for 6- to 9-year-olds," Zeitlin says, "but she had this incredible wisdom in this tiny body, a determination and fierceness, unflappable and fearless."

Zeitlin says he sees her as an "Einstein of kids," and that such intelligence was important for playing a role where a small girl is "trying to understand nature while living in a place where nature is extremely hostile and trying to take away all the things she cares about."

Indeed, Wallis captures the naive courage of youth, the conviction that she can be master of her universe, against all odds. "She's a folk hero, incredibly moral and open-hearted," Zeitlin says. "Her power is her ability to accept and respect, her lack of judgment, her sweetness."

That nature serves her well in the Bathtub, which might appear to outsiders as poverty-stricken and no place for a child.

But the movie isn't about "poor people," as Zeitlin says. "People bring in a lot of preconceptions, what it means to have characters in dirty clothes. The Bathtub is an incredibly joyous place that has a type of freedom that doesn't exist in a world that's ruled by technology, jobs, money, politics, religion and race. It's unencumbered by all the things that divide the world. There's no class in the Bathtub. ... It's all about acceptance."

Still, it's hard not to fall in love with Hushpuppy and fear for her safety. At one point, she hides in a box that she has brought into her shack and draws on its cardboard walls, sort of like ancient humans did in caves.

"There's a connection with the culture of cave paintings, to a culture that's now extinct," Zeitlin says. "Hushpuppy is a descendant of those who have gone extinct."

And that's also the origin of the beasts that are referred to in the title. In the movie, they're represented as aurochs — ancient, ferocious boar-like animals that have been trapped for eons in glaciers, which are now melting. They're heading for Louisiana, and Hushpuppy seems destined to meet them as the movie progresses.

It's a bit of magical realism, but it adds a lot of thematic heft to the film. "The aurochs, the cavemen, the Bathtub ... they're all the last of their kind," Zeitlin says. And that helps make "Beasts of the Southern Wild" a one-of-a-kind movie.

Contact Charles Ealy at 445-3931