Friday, August 3, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild (****)

Directed by Benh Zeitlin


Occasionally, a film comes along and it's very scope and cinematic vision leaves you frustrated with the limits of contemporary narrative films. Talk about a film that is astonishingly beautiful and wondrously innovative without James Cameron-like resources. Taking place somewhere in between fantasy and reality, Beasts of the Southern Wild erupts time and time again with so much unbridled emotion and enthusiasm. Not too shabby for a film that takes place in a setting that is so lofty, they call it The Bathtub.

The Bathtub is some form impoverished paradise where those who reside are not too interested in regular society, including laundry, electricity and decent shelter. They live off the fat of the land. Raising animals, drinking beer, picking bayou fish and crab right out of the water and having it for dinner that very night. Every day's an adventure and every night's a party. The only resistance that stands is a levy that blocks off the Bathtub from the real world. Towering oil refineries stare down from that side of the wall. The fake side. The unruly side. Those living in the Bathtub have no interest in that side.

Amongst the Bathtub's inhabitants are Husypuppy (six-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father Wink (Dwight Henry). With Hushpuppy's mother nowhere in sight, she lives alone with the irascible Wink. He is brutish, temperamental and unspeakably stubborn, especially when it comes to his home. Not even a severe hurricane - one sure to put the entire Bathtub under the sea - is enough to uproot Wink from his beloved town. So, what does he do when the ominous storm approaches? He tells Hushpuppy to sit in a suitcase, so when the water rises she can float and bust through the ceiling. It's remarkable how often Wink's concepts really come into fruition.

The film is shown exclusively through the eyes of Hushpuppy, following an exquisite narration by the surprisingly wise young girl as she explores the harsh world of which it is all she knows. There are times when she is defiant against the bullheaded Wink, there are times when she is bullheaded herself, but she is always strong, never afraid of the obstacles ahead of her. Through the eyes of a child, even a wasteland as harrowing as the Bathtub can be filled with magic and wonder. It's a testament to the filmmaking that even the viewer comes to regard the Bathtub as some haven when it's obvious that it's anything but.

The community that remains after the storm dwindles, and the little resources the Bathtub has begins to shrivel under the flood. Eerie similarities to New Orleans and Katrina are apparent. But there is no tragedy in those staying amongst the wreckage. Hushpuppy, Wink and the other Bathtubbers love their home so much that they are willing to stay even in ruins. Even fighting against those who mean to offer help, shelter and medical assistance. The inhabitants of the Bathtub, led by the resilient and surprisingly powerful Hushpuppy persevere through the hardships and wouldn't have it any other way.

Beasts of the Southern Wild was directed by Benh Zeitlin, one of the founders of Court 13, a production company that describes itself as a "grassroots, independent filmmaking army". An entire recourse of their ambitions and message is laid out on their website, in a manifesto that doesn't seem too dissimilar from the Danish Dogme film movement of the late 1990's. They seem bent on making powerful films on a small scale. Well, their first feature is certainly a success if that was the case. The film's gritty tone, led by Zeitlin's incredibly intimate camera, places us in an otherworldly setting unlike any film in quite a few years.

But I should make one thing clear, this film's heart and soul is the powerhouse performance from the pint-sized Quvenzhané Wallis. First-time actor and equipped with the nappiest afro this side of the Atlantic, Wallis storms through every scene she's in, barely cracking a smile, but always expressive. It's always hard to judge the performances of children, especially someone as young as Wallis, but she does hold the very center of the film in her hands and never skips a beat for a single frame. Granted she is helped greatly by Dwight Henry (also a first-timer), who's explosive Wink always seems to be hiding that slightly lighter side underneath the rough exterior. It's hard to think of a more satisfying ending than the final scene that these two performers share together in this film.

Beasts of the Southern Wild was born out of an experiment, but it became something ultimately much more precious. It's locale, it's characters, everything is like an explosion of joy. I don't pretend to understand every scene or every metaphor (which is presuming there is any metaphor to be seen? I, for one, found its narrative to be quite enjoyable without inserting any hidden meaning upon it.), but this is a film where everything just feels right, and you trust the ride the filmmakers are about to take you on. And it is a ride, all right. The best ride I've had in the movie theater so far this year.

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