Thursday, January 3, 2013

Beasts of the Southern Wild Movie Review

Beasts of the Southern Wild got a great deal of attention last year, from its Sundance Festival premiere in January through its national release to talk of possible Oscar nominations including Best Picture. I think a lot of it has to do with the type of production it is and less to do with the whimsical fantasy elements and completely adorable young actress who stars. It was written, produced and directed outside the studio system with a cast comprised entirely of non-professional actors. Plus the film is made to feel unlike any other film you’re likely to have seen.

It takes place entirely in a place known as The Bathtub. As near as I can figure, this place is perhaps an island or some area near New Orleans, but outside the now infamous levees. The people who reside here live in conditions of squalor that most people can barely imagine. Their houses are elevated from the ground to protect from flooding. They get around on makeshift boats fashioned from sofas, tires and other junk. But they all know each other and they are self-reliant in a way that it doesn’t matter that they’re cut off from the world. They like it that way.

In the center of the colorful cast of characters is the six-year old girl Hushpuppy, whose father is an alcoholic who nevertheless gives her valuable instruction in making it through the world. He tells her that her mother swam far away long ago. Hushpuppy narrates her story, which includes not only her childish observations about the world around her, but also facts she’s apparently culled together from multiple stories to fashion a story of prehistoric beasts known as Aurochs trapped in the polar ice caps waiting to be released.

I could talk about the plot of the film, adapted by director Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar from Alibar’s stage play, about a father who disappears for several days and stumbles home in a hospital gown. This is a father who treats Hushpuppy like a young man instead of the little girl she is. And he’s a man who, despite not possessing the parenting skills we in the world of middle class suburban life think are important, will do what he can to keep his child alive because that’s “his job” he tells her. I could tell of a great storm that ravages the bayou and floods the Bathtub to the treetops and leaves all the plant and animal life dying. Then the state officials who declare it a mandatory evacuation zone and haul everyone off to a makeshift shelter. I could sum up with a description of Hushpuppy going on a journey in which she finds her mother, a lookalike, or a complete fantasy representation of her mother. None of that is sufficient to express the joy it is to watch this movie. This is a movie that’s more concerned with creating a splendid visual context to match the wonder and amazement in a little girl’s mind than with a story that plods along from A to B.

Dwight Henry is a local baker where the film was shot. He was cast as Hushpuppy’s father and practiced his lines at work. I’m amazed watching a completely unself-conscious amateur actor inhabit a role with everything he has at his disposal. Perhaps even more remarkable is Quvenzhan√© Wallis as Hushpuppy. She has fierceness in her eyes that. This is not your typical juvenile performance because it’s not your typical narrative film that uses emotional manipulation to signal the audience how to feel and react. There are no cutesy or teary-eyed scenes. Hushpuppy is not an adorable child in the traditional sense that cinema most often requires. She is connected to her surroundings, full of imagination, and determined to be master of her domain, even while she still depends on her daddy to see her through.

If there’s a political element infused in the film, it’s gently eased in. You might find references to Hurricane Katrina, though I would say that event serves as inspiration rather than source material. You could say that the bureaucrats who take Hushpuppy and her father away from the Bathtub by force are exerting something akin to totalitarian dominion over the less fortunate. You certainly can’t deny that after an hour of scenes set in swampland, shantytowns and dirt roads, the presence of white walls and doctors in lab coats looks foreign. As the strongest moment of coercing the audience to see things through Hushpuppy’s eyes, that’s one of Zeitlin’s greatest achievements. Some might argue that the conditions the characters are living in is destitute squalor and that no child should be raised under such conditions. That sort of misses the point. Beasts of the Southern Wild doesn’t argue either way for whether or not poor people should be left to live in the conditions they choose (whether or not they choose the conditions is an entirely different discussion even further outside the scope of the film), it simply presents a life on film and asks us to be a part of it and follow Hushpuppy through the fantasies she creates – a gift all children have that gets lost sometime later.

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