Never has a movie made me feel so middle-class. Beasts of the Southern Wild, the first feature from director/co-writer Benh Zeitlin, which won the Camera d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and Best Feature: Drama award at Sundance in January, is many things: highly original, gorgeously art-directed, folklore-inspired. It's an allegorical-feeling tale about a father and daughter, Wink and Hushpuppy, who, along with a tribe of intrepid individualists, live completely off the grid in the southernmost reaches of the Louisiana bayou, and who won't be moved even when disaster – in the form of Hurricane Katrina and its subsequent flood – strikes. It has an uplifting, triumphal score, also co-written by Zeitlin. And it heralds the arrival of his filmmaking collective, Court 13 (kind of a non-hierarchical repertoire company), as well as a child star to reckon with in Quvenzhané Wallis, who plays the redoubtable Hushpuppy.
But watching it also made me writhe in discomfort. Hushpuppy and Wink live in neighbouring shacks cobbled together from repurposed refuse, which, despite their magical qualities, is another way of saying they live in garbage. He's a drinker and a wanderer who leaves her free to explore her world, which is another way of saying he ignores her completely as she courts danger. In a scene where Hushpuppy is taught to eat a crab, she's encouraged to eschew cutlery and "beast it" – rip it apart with her bare hands, like an animal – which, while liberating, is also tossing aside a tool of basic civilization. The folks who live in Hushpuppy's village have their own school and folk medicines, but I couldn't help thinking that perhaps their lives might have been enriched by things like, oh, inoculations and books and indoor plumbing.
Beasts of the Southern Wild isn't merely an allegory about a kind of pure backwoods freedom – on another level, it's a harrowing metaphor for how my native country, the United States, has turned its back on its most economically disadvantaged citizens so thoroughly that they would rather live in garbage and eat with their fingers than consider themselves part of it. I could see why the filmgoers around me were flooded with wonder, but I was also flooded with shame.
I asked Zeitlin by phone this week if anyone else had reacted as I did. "Definitely," he answered. "It's meant to challenge the way we think about raising children. It's pushing all those buttons on purpose. And there are parts of New Orleans where there's real structural poverty, a collapsed educational system and economy, and people are being written off and abandoned. But that isn't really what I was trying to make this film about. It's much more about a rural mentality where there's a real choice to shed material stuff, to not participate in the normal culture of America."
Zeitlin knows his allegories. He and his sister Eliza, who is also part of Court 13 ("She's the visual mind behind the films," he says), were raised in New York, where their parents, Steve Zeitlin and Amanda Dargan, are urban folklorists and founders of a non-profit organization called City Lore. He grew up making art – movies, puppet shows, music, writing. "My parents sang us to sleep every night, but it wasn't until later that we realized all the songs were about some guy who takes his wife to the river, murders her and throws her in the bay," Zeitlin says, laughing. "We were always surrounded by eccentric people from different cultures. Every weekend we were backstage at a Chinese opera or at a party for the Coney Island freak show. My parents have an amazing, open-hearted celebration and appreciation for all kinds of people and culture. That's something we try to bring to the films."
In 2004, he and like-minded friends from Wesleyan University in Connecticut founded Court 13, named after the campus squash court they used as a soundstage for short films. The collective's third major short, 2008's Glory at Sea, a fantasy set in post-Katrina New Orleans, won several awards on the festival circuit. While making it, Zeitlin started driving to the bottom of little roads, discovering near-forgotten marsh-edge towns, befriending groups of people who live in "this heightened state of independence" from conventional commodities. "The ability people have down there to move outside of society and thrive, use the resources of the land and their ingenuity to build a universe that's completely independent from what we think of as America or society" inspired Beasts. "Film has an amazing way of letting you explore the world," he adds. "There's no better way to get invited over for dinner than to be making a movie."
Everything in Beasts is something that Zeitlin had seen, in some form, in Louisiana. If they needed a wooden wall, they'd find a house that was being demolished and truck the boards to their location. "My sister built Wink's house by moving into the woods, finding the scraps of metal that were there and strapping them together," he says. "She lived in that house with all her animals through the entire production. So when we went to shoot, if we opened a drawer there would be something in it. I think that's why it feels real. It's a real place."
Now, of course, Hollywood is courting him to ditch that authenticity and make something loud and shiny for them. "They want us, but they're not getting through," Zeitlin says, laughing again. "We have a really intact system, a group of people who are trying to create art by our own special code. We don't need to change it to do our next film. We're trying to navigate this success to give ourselves more leverage for the next one, and the ability to do things that are more difficult. But we want to keep the family the same, keep on generating original material and telling our own stories."
These Beasts of the Northeast Wild are doing it their way, and so far their success is blissfully ambivalence-free.