Review: 'Beasts of the Southern Wild'
BY MICHAEL SMITH World Scene Writer
Friday, July 27, 2012
7/27/12 at 5:26 AM
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Audiences are programmed to expect prepackaged motion pictures, full of big-name stars they know and concepts that are familiar.
That can make it difficult to be prepared for something starring people we've never heard of and featuring ideas that challenge the roteness of our viewing sensibilities.
"Beasts of the Southern Wild" is that kind of rare animal, and it bears watching for its artistry as well as the infrequency that audiences are exposed to something of this nature and originality.
The picture is a modern-day cinematic fable set in a fictional place called the Bathtub, but it will feel familiar to anyone who witnessed the events of Hurricane Katrina - especially the aftermath. That's when many of us learned that some Americans live and die in a manner most would find impossible to fathom.
The story revolves around 6-year-old Hushpuppy's courageous adventures in the Bathtub, which would be an area far outside the levee protecting a nearby city. This is a place populated by people who have no concept of the poverty line, living in what resembles a salvage yard.
Their lives are ones of base necessities: food and shelter. Trailers and shacks are their abodes, but these residents are not unlike cave people in their simplicity. These are their choices in life; they are people united in their simple joys and freedoms away from most of society.
You might think that this is where childhood dreams go to die, but Hushpuppy's innocence remains largely intact. The trouble is that her father/protector is slowly dying, so there is a natural concern for what will happen to a little girl in this unforgiving environment of high waters.
Balanced against this harsh reality is the matter of her finding safety from the approaching mythical Aurochs, an extinct ancestor of modern-day cattle but with a bad attitude when it comes to rambling toward our pint-sized narrator.
The style of the movie is that of magical realism (think "Field of Dreams" as an example), and there is certainly magic to be found in writer-director Benh Zeitlin's debut, a winner at the Cannes Film Festival (best first feature) as well as at the Sundance Film Festival (best drama).
Some of that realism comes in casting non-actors like Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy, a beyond-brave child who with her little white rain boots and finger-in-socket afro looks like a miniature Macy Gray, uttering lines like: "They think we're all gonna drown down here. But we ain't going nowhere."
It's difficult to know how much effort it took to achieve Wallis' beautiful performance, but this non-actor's range of expressions - from curiosity to steadfast resistance, from strong-willed survival mode to fear and sorrow - are unforgettable.
The poetry of "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is undeniable, and the imagery that Zeitlin creates is both gorgeous and disturbing at times. In watching Hushpuppy and her father float along after a devastating storm, inside the sawed-off bed of a pickup, there is no doubt that Zeitlin's own Katrina experience was intensely personal.
The film's underlying social commentary (anti-Big Oil) and folk psychology ("Strong animals know when your hearts are weak") feels at times affected and pretentious, especially in approaching a conclusion.
These are obvious challenges for viewers beyond the art-house intentions based on co-screenwriter Lucy Alibar's stage play.
But the questions asked are big and the situations universal: How do you react upon losing the most important things in your life, like your father and your home?
Dwight Henry plays Hushpuppy's dad, raging against Mother Nature's elements and safeguarding Hushpuppy with a fiery passion.
Henry is an amateur, and yet watching him is to be reminded of what naturalistic acting looks like.
"Beasts of the Southern Wild" is as much a welcome surprise as it is a curiosity in a world where big-budget movies come from Hollywood and films like this come from out of nowhere.
‘BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD’
Cast: Quvenzhane Wallis, Dwight
Theater: AMC Southroads 20
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Rated: PG-13 (thematic material
including child imperilment, some
disturbing images, language, brief
Quality: (on a scale of zero to
Original Print Headline: Unique artistry
Michael Smith 918-581-8479
The style of "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is that of magical realism, a cinematic fable set in a fictional place that will remind viewers of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast. BEN RICHARDSON/Fox Searchlight
Quvenzhane Wallis, a 6-year-old who had never acted before being cast as the lead in "Beasts of the Southern Wild," brings a staggering range of emotion to her role as Hushpuppy. Fox Searchlight Pictures/Courtesy
Watching amateur actor Dwight Henry as the dying father in "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is to be reminded of what naturalistic acting looks like. JESS PINKHAM/Fox Searchlight