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Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

October 23, 2012

 

written by: Ben Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar

produced by: Josh Penn, Dan Janvey & 

directed by: Ben Zeitlin

rated PG-13 (for thematic material including child imperilment, some 

disturbing images, language and brief sensuality

runtime: 92 min.

U.S. release date: June 27, 2012 (limited release) 

 

Here is a film I had been anticipating since I heard its growing praise coming out of Sundance. Each year, there’s a film from a debut director there that receives great buzz and that was given to Benh Zeitlin this year. The film has been described in many ways: beautiful, surreal, harrowing and imaginative, with powerful performances by two non-actors playing a father and his young daughter. The focus is on them and a handful of others as they survive perilous surroundings in the aftermath of a natural disaster, bearing broad resemblance to the post-Hurricane Katrina life in the Gulf Coast. Add all these elements up and my interest is piqued, yet despite respecting and appreciating a few aspects of “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, I’m left wondering why I didn’t like it as much as everyone else.

The story, written by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar (loosely based on her one-act stage production “Juicy and Delicious”) is set in an unspecified future, where melted ice caps have caused rising sea levels to overwhelm the coastal U.S. It feels like it could be Louisiana, but it’s never really stated. The Cajun and bayou dialect are present as is the lifestyle of the stubborn (and often drunk) poverty-stricken residents. They live in what they call The Bathtub, an unpredictable environment with patched together shacks for homes that are designed to withstand storms blowing them out to sea. These people live outside “civilized world” and the government, who have built a levee to fortify the remaining dry land community.

 

 

Wink lives in the The Bathtub below the levee with his six year-old daughter Hushpuppy. Her mother left them long ago, leaving the abrasive and alcoholic Wink (Dwight Henry) to care for Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) with a method of harsh tough love. For unknown reasons, the two of them live in separate yet equally dilapidated homes amid other drunken and stubborn residents of this sun-baked population. That ought to tell you something right there about the kind of parent Wink is and why Hushpuppy has become quite a resilient and resourceful little girl. He’s trained her to be tough, to be “the man”, partly because tough skin is needed in such an environment but also because he realizes he has a terminal illness. When the waters rise, the duo lose their home in the overwhelming flood, which requires Hushpuppy to use any resource necessary to try to keep herself safe and her father alive on a makeshift boat.

Shot on a limited budget in a variety of Louisiana locales, the film was not only a hit at Sundance, but also a winner at Cannes. There is plenty to be impressed with here in “Beasts”, yet even in those areas, it seems to be too much of a good thing. Right away, it’s hard not to notice the gorgeous cinematography by Ben Richardson, but even then, the saturated lighting at times comes across as too deliberate in its attempt at providing beautifully naturalistic and artistic visuals. Even the soundtrack (by Dab Romer and Zeitlin), as enjoyable and fitting as it is to the region’s culture, feels overbearing, swelling to the point of pulling on our heartstrings instead of allowing us to get their on our own. That’s unfortunate, but at least the subtleties and nuances found in the lead performance make up for anything that Zeitlin forces on us.

On that note, there’s no possible way to take your eyes off Wallis. It’s amazing that she filmed her role at a mere five years of age. But maybe that’s the beauty of her work here. Since she has such a short amount of life experience to bring to the character, it’s all new to her, and therefore to us. That’s why seeing Hushpuppy’s world, the only one she knows, from her unique perspective and narration is feels so real and genuine. It’s easy to be convinced that Hushpuppy believes she can understand coded messages between the animals around her, when an actor with zero reservations such as Wallis is portraying the character. Even in the moments when Zeitlin injects foreboding scenes of what looks like prehistoric boars that are closing in on Hushbpuppy and those surrounding her (whether it’s in her imagination or not), we believe it all because of how invested we are in atmosphere Wallis commits to.

 

 

Then there’s Henry, who was found running a bakery near the shooting locations of “Beasts”. He winds up delivering Wink’s lines with a variation of shouting and guttural mumbles. Next to Wallis, he’s like a combination of other deadbeat dads we’ve seen in the other films. There are natural moments though in his performance, like how we see him gradually acknowledge that Wallis would be better off without him. Despite her youth, we’re with him on that.

There’s no doubt, “Beasts” is one of the most original cinematic visions from a debut director this year. It may not be for everyone thought. I saw it with my wife, expecting to experience a strong child performance amid a Terry Gilliam style of filmmaking, but Zeitlin’s jittery camerawork had my wife leaving about thirty minutes in due to nausea. So, those who are sensitive to that kind of thing, bring your Dramamine, if you’re seeing it in the theater.

Maybe a second viewing of Zeitlin’s passionate and imaginative debut will provide a stronger appreciation for the film. The only aspect of the film that still remains with me is what I saw through the eyes of Hushpuppy, but that is still enough to recommend it. The fact that others are praising “Beasts of the Southern Wild” might be another reason. I had intended to. Maybe someday I will.

 

RATING **1/2

 

 

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Lauri permalink
    October 23, 2012 4:39 pm

    David – I agree. I thought there was something wrong with me, that I didn’t like the movie as much as I was supposed to. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed it – but something was missing for me. I can’t put my finger on it, though. Maybe I thought it was too melodramatic – too sad.

    Quvenzhané Wallis presence on the screen is undoubtedly magical. There is no other way to describe this girl’s performance (for a 5 year old). However, other than Hushpuppy, I was not invested in any other character’s in the movie.

    I believe in the realism of the movie – that there are people in the Bayou who really live as this group of people did. I appreciated seeing their story. The symbolism, however – with the boars, etc – was lost on me.

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      October 23, 2012 11:25 pm

      I hear ya. I was hoping for even more of the fantasy type element, maybe something trippier, like we’d find in a Gilliam film. I dunno. I too cannot pinpoint what mystery aspect was missing.

  2. Maija permalink
    January 20, 2013 1:16 pm

    I watched this film the other day on DVD. I was also hoping to like it more then I did. I’m not sure if it was because I was watching it with several people who clearly hated it or if it was because I was trying so hard to figure out what the “Beasts” really were or what they symbolized. I never really figured them out… real, imaginary just to Wallis, symbolizing something that I didn’t quite grasp…. I don’t know. The other part that bothered me was logistics. How did her dad get to the hospital? How did he get back considering he was staggering and in a hospital gown when they are surrounded by water? How did they get back to the bathtub from the mainland in a school bus? How did Wallis get back from the floating “Girls, Girls, Girls” place? Etc…..

  3. February 1, 2013 10:34 am

    I watched this last night. I found lots to criticize during the first half or so, but then I fell into it’s rhythms, stopped comparing my perspective to the story’s, and began to accept that world and those characters as legitimate and whole. By the end, I was deeply moved, and wasn’t quite ready to leave that world behind. Wallis as Hushpuppy was great casting and she absolutely delivered, however, I still don’t see her performance as worthy of an Oscar nomination. I think she has one of those faces that just happen to be designed for a role such as this. When you combine that with good child acting, a movie such as this can strike gold. Casting her in this role made all the difference, but I’m really not so sure it was because of her ACTING skill. I appreciated Dwight Henry’s performance as Wink. I saw his humanity and redeemable qualities even as he slapped his beautiful little girl. Not an easy thing to pull off.

  4. Leah permalink
    February 2, 2013 12:04 am

    The beasts ate each other with no regard. They got closer and closer as the doom of storm and interference from the civilized got closer. I feel they represent the less pure (read: 99%) of humanity, hell bent on destroying the small part of humanity that is clinging to what’s left of a pure life and the pain and suffering that comes along with living outside of civilization. They are the pigs from the opening sequence of Spirited Away.

    I thought it was a beautiful film.

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