Dreams on the Water

Beasts of the Southern Wild

a film directed by Benh Zeitlin

Moonrise Kingdom

a film directed by Wes Anderson
Fox Searchlight
Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy in Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild

The phrase “adventure movie” was food, in childhood, for the most pleasurable kind of anticipation. The excitement wasn’t really ever about the particular exploits, historical or otherwise, that were ostensibly to be celebrated. It had more to do with the prospect of sweeping movements and eye-popping primary colors—of imposing and ever-changing spatial perspectives—of an immersive experience of rivers and canyons and forests, and the opportunity to wander inside half-buried cities or remote encampments. The promise was of dreamlike freedom of movement through a world at once concrete and mysterious—a world shaped for unsupervised play. Two quite remarkable American movies that opened this summer, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Moonrise Kingdom, can be described as adventure movies in the true sense. They breathe an unaccustomed air of freedom and curiosity and what can only be called elation.

Although in other respects as different as can be, they do have certain aspects in common. Each is steeped—Beasts throughout, Kingdom at its climax—in the element of water at its mostly violently uncontrolled. Each lays claim, with an explorer’s attentiveness, to a geographic domain closed off to the outside world. And each is filtered through the consciousness of young leading characters: a six-year-old girl in Beasts, a pair of twelve-year-old runaways in Kingdom. The filmmakers have not gone to children for the sake of their bewildered innocence but for their ferocious clarity of intention and their radiant intelligence not yet reined in or habituated to sullen conformity.

To say that Beasts of the Southern Wild was filmed in southern Louisiana understates the case—it seems like an enormous construction made from pieces of southern Louisiana, and inhabited by the people found there by the film’s young director, Benh Zeitlin, a New Yorker who has been living in New Orleans since 2008. Yet this is no documentary but a work of purest fantasy, set in a world just adjacent to the real and operating with all the liberties of folklore.

We are somewhere south of New Orleans, beyond the levee, on a perpetually endangered floodplain settlement called the Bathtub, a sort of multiracial Eden sustaining itself on wildlife and debris: a loosely linked bayou community below the radar and off the grid. Here the water seeps into everything. We are outside history, outside sociology, caught up straightaway in the territories toward which Huck Finn lit out or in the swamp at the end of the mind, a messy profusion of fiddle music and moonshine. They are wild people living among wild things, unconstrained by laws or walls, reliant on ancient prophecies and herbal cures, at home with the water that may overwhelm them at any moment. It hardly matters whether we are in paradise or perdition. Perhaps it is perdition transmuted by sheer cussedness into paradise. In the…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.