Posted by: chance47 | 07/29/2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

We are just now entering August and I believe we have already found one of the top contenders for the best film of the year.  “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is one of the most unique film experiences I have had in quite some time.  First time full-length director Benh Zeitlan, working from a script adapted by Benh and Lucy Alibar from her own play titled “Juicy and Delicious”, has crafted a beautiful moving narrative film that is as visually stunning as it is starkly simple.  

The story centers around six-year-old Hushpuppy (an amazing and revolutionary breakthrough performance by six-year-old newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis).   She and her father Wink (an equally impressive Dwight Henry),  live in a potentially mythical delta town called the Bathtub.   All we know of the Bathtub is that it is south of a huge levee and dangerously close to being swallowed by the ocean.   Its residents live in what most would call squalor and ignorance, but Benh never passes judgement on any of these characters.   Filmed in Southern Louisiana, it is no coincidence that viewers might immediately draw parallels to New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina.   The Bathtub, however, is not as mythical as the movie possibly makes it out to be.

If I’m sounding annoyingly vague, it’s because much of “Beasts” charm is that it is a movie set not entirely in reality but in a world of magical realism.   Where ancient creatures known as Aurochs are awakening to return to reclaim the land and consume the residents of the Bathtub.  Where old magic medicine from the Earth and strange freighters in the night change characters mysteriously.

What drives the movie with its relatively simple plot, the Bathtub is ravaged by floods and Hushpuppy seeks a cure for her ailing father by trying to find her lost mother, is the fierce and unflinching performance by Wallis.   A young girl discovered out of over 4,000 child auditions, she can command the screen with a single scowl and spread a smile across your face with a mighty yelp.   I am not typically a fan of  movies that rely on heavy narration, but “Beasts” narration not only brings you into the mind and imagination of the ferocious Hushpuppy, but also into the core of what most of us forget makes us animal.

Quvenzhané Wallis, who I suspect we will be hearing a lot more from in the years to come, gives that rare child performance that transcends “acting”.   Her Hushpuppy becomes a conduit for not only the magical world the movie takes us to but for all the pain of a post-Katrina Louisiana.  While Dwight Henry, makes the impossible possible.   He takes a father character that is alcoholic, abusive and unpredictable and makes him not just sympathetic but empathetic.  His motivations for his treatment of Hushpuppy and his unending love for the Bathtub, become increasingly clear as the movie progresses and Henry makes Wink a feral but fiercely loyal father.

It’s clear the director, Benh Zeitlin, feels a great deal of affection for these characters and locations, and shoots the film with a grainy, stark but ultimately warm candor.  Which makes the scenes of the encroaching Aurochs all the more stomach churning and engrossing.  The score, which Zeitlan worked on with Dan Romer, dares to topple into an area of near-schmaltz but instead inspires but reigning in just at the exact second it needs to.

The greatest joy of the film is that I truly had no idea where it was going.  Early on in the film I had no choice but to let go and allow myself to be taken by land and sea through the Bathtub and beyond. By the end I knew I had reached the perfect destination and was quite shocked by how simply and honestly it got me there.

Is the Bathtub real?   Are the prehistoric Aurochs real?  Is this movie a magical hero’s journey or a modern commentary on society.  I know which I believe, but the true beauty is that on either level and regardless of “real or not real” the movie is stirring and, yes, magical.  The movie suggests that there is a beast in all of us.  A beast that struggles against all odds to survive, provide, protect and flourish.  And as Hushpuppy so simply but eloquently states in the movie,  “That makes it okay.”

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