Beasts of the Southern Wild: A Look at Emotion, Lighting, and Sound
Showing the best and worst of human nature on screen can be difficult, especially if that story involves family. But Beasts of the Southern Wild is different. The 2012 American drama directed by Benh Zeitlin focuses on a young girl, Hushpuppy, and her ill-tempered father, Wink. It’s an artistic combination of sound and lighting that delivers breathtaking shots, realistic dialogue, and a genuinely compassionate relationship which are facets of life that don't get enough screen time in modern filmmaking. Zeitlin successfully tapped into the organic and unflinching side of life by fully utilizing both the technical side and emotional storytelling aspects of cinema.
A film that encompasses the weighty themes of poverty, loss, race, and coming of age in less than two hours has the potential to feel simultaneously preachy and aimless. But Beasts of the Southern Wild is an entirely different entity. Benh Zeitlin takes an unlikely pairing, places them in an equally unlikely location (a Louisiana bayou community with the moniker “the Bathtub”) and shows their strange little world through the eyes of a child. Every frame has a mystical quality and was specifically shot to give the audience a fully immersive experience. Over the span of the movie, the camera seems to take on a life of its own— it pans and tilts with wild abandon while skillfully avoiding recklessness. Often, it rests at Hushpuppy’s eye level. This is a purposeful decision. Hushpuppy isn’t the most articulate character— she’s a young toddler, and much of her world is focused on imaginative play and fantasy worlds with little thought to the meaning of her reality. In following the movie from Hushpuppy’s own eyes, Zeitlin and his cinematographer, Ben Richardson, create a world so saturated with rich hues and beautiful framing that it feels difficult to tear one’s eyes away from the screen.
One intensely gorgeous scene from the beginning of Beasts of the Southern Wild transcends the boundary from ordinary to magical and demonstrates Zeitlin’s easy mastery of lighting on the screen. The Bathtub is celebratingyet again, and this event is over-the-top in the best way. Hushpuppy takes a pair of large sparklers from Wink and runs through the crowd, face aglow. As she runs, everyone is illuminated by her sparks. This warm, emotive light is repeated throughout the film: there are Christmas lights in Hushpuppy’s trailer, a single hot light bulb dangling from a ceiling, and a weak ray of sun filtering through the window in Wink’s hospital room. Zeitlin purposely kept this theme of light throughout to show life. Although much of the film is extremely dark, Hushpuppy is the one spark of humanity and magic that still exists in the world.
Further, to neglect the power of sound design in Beasts of the Southern Wild is to ignore one of the most powerful facets in the film. There are moments of cacophony, and moments where there’s nothing but the sound of dripping water. Whenever two characters are fighting, the sound of their ruckus overwhelms the scene. One notable example is when Wink and Hushpuppy are arguing after Hushpuppy accidentally burns down their trailer home. Emotions are high, toddler and adult are yelling at each other, and that’s all one can hear. It’s as if the audience is momentarily tossed into Hushpuppy’s head, where all she can focus on is the barrage of anger from her father, the one person in her life she trusts to keep her safe . It is pain. These moments of jarring nothingness serve the story well.
In Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin took an idea and transformed it into an incredibly nuanced and intense cinematic experience. The attention to technique brings out a whole level of depth that easily could have gone disregarded by anyone other than Zeitlin[SM11] . Beasts of the Southern Wild is honest without feeling preachy, and serious while still being entertaining. And most importantly, the story is human at its very core. It unflinchingly welcomes the ugly and painful parts of life while knowing that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel.