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2 reviews, 3 user ratings

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Beasts of the Southern Wild
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by Brett Gallman

"A wonderfully untamed coming of age tale."
5 stars

Benh Zeitlin’s stunning debut comes from a complex place; it’s delivered with the surety of someone wise to the pangs of growing up, but it also carries itself with the whimsy of its six year old protagonist. It’s a bildungsroman that reminds us that growing up never happens in a straight line, especially when it’s foisted upon children at such an age; instead, it’s more akin to straddling a line between that whimsy and cruel reality. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” presents a young girl gracefully tip-toeing that line, where her own imagination is deployed like a defense mechanism to tell a very child-like story that transforms profound sadness into profound triumph.

To say that Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) merely “grows up” during the course of the film is an understatement. Having already suffered the loss of her mother (who took off when she was younger, though Hushpuppy still has lingering memories), she now faces the failing health of her father (Dwight Henry) that sends her on a journey that she narrates herself, a story that turns a poignant childhood episode into something of a folk tale that blends magical realism and Faulkner’s absurd Southern gothic.

She lives in the Bathtub, a bayou enclave all but cut off from the rest of the world. It’s a sweltering slum inhabited by an indomitable group of locals who live in defiance of the “dry land” that condescends to consider them homeless victims. The film’s opening sequence presents evidence to the contrary--this is a bold group who have embraced life and the rhythm of nature. Nearly everyday is like Mardi Gras here, and Zeitlin deftly introduces us to this world with a stirring, rousing rendition of one of these celebrations that’s capped with Hushpuppy galloping with sparkling fireworks in tow, an image that leaves little doubt that the Bathtub is one of the most magical places you’ll visit this year.

The area is also forever hanging on an apocalyptic precipice, as any major storm would spell catastrophe since they rest on the wrong side of the levee that’s condemned them to a life of such squalor. An old legend familiar to Hushpuppy insists that the polar ice caps will someday melt and unleash a horde of prehistoric beasts that will signal a watery end times.

That this eventually seems to happen as Hushpuppy’s life begins to crumble makes sense. She’s somewhere in that pre-operational cognitive stage where images and symbols are taken literally, and her egocentrism determines that her personal chaos is magnified to such apocalyptic levels. She still conflates individual death with the end of the world, so when a storm actually descends on the Bathtub and her father’s health deteriorates further, it might as well be the end.

But she’s a resilient girl, infused with both ferocity and anxiety by Wallis’s staggeringly natural performance. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” presents a narrative that becomes increasingly heightened and symbolic, but Wallis grounds it with a crucial authenticity. Her story might eventually be something of a tall tale, but it’s guided by some very real fear, longing, and fortitude. By the end of the film, Wallis, Zeitlin, and co-writer Lucy Alibar have painted an incredibly perceptive and genuine portrait of a child’s psyche that attempts to turn reality into myth before settling for something in between.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” itself dangles between these modes, with Ben Richardson’s photography filtering the ramshackle rawness of the landscapes through a dreamy lens that darts around with a childlike curiosity, keying in on the odd details and moments, each packed with portent. It’s a film that features Viking funerals and an odyssey across a Lethe-like river but also takes enough time to capture the drunken revelry in between. Sometimes, it feels like an impossibly good film--Zeitlin is a first-time director but every note here feels orchestrated by a seasoned maestro, his world brought to life by a cast of non-actors who feel like they were born in front of a camera. Henry was literally plucked from the streets to portray Wink, Hushpuppy’s father, the most complicated figure for a girl trying to bring order to chaos. He wears his years in every expression (some of which betray his understandable vindictiveness), but there’s a fiery defiance and toughness that’s mirrored in his daughter.

Like a cast-off from the alternate universe where David Gordon Green kept making films like “George Washington,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is an evocative, humane, and affectionate representation of rural Americana and the struggles of its youth. While the film does capture the bigger picture (it’s difficult to see levees and entire underwater communities and not recall Katrina), it’s mostly a simple reaffirmation of the steadiness provided by home. This is one of the many lessons Hushpuppy eventually understands--in many ways, she’s as much the Bathtub’s child as much as she is Wink’s, and her desire to be its king (decidedly not its queen) swells from a sense of pride rather than contempt. Maybe if Hushpuppy were a teenager, she’d hold some sort of resentment for her plight, but there’s no time or place for resentment here--only resolve and a desire to explore and discover nothing less than the universe and one’s place within it.

In that respect, “Beasts” is a bit of an epilogue to last year’s comparable ruminations in “The Tree of Life” and “Melancholia”; Zeitlin dials things back down from the cosmic scales of Malick and Von Trier, but he similarly reflects a character's inner turmoil in the surrounding world. Such existentialism is filtered through the eyes of a six-year-old who insists “the whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right” and simply fixing what’s broken is the key to figuring it all out, a sentiment whose simple sincerity and profundity aptly summarizes the wealth of texture and poignancy offered by the film.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=23196&reviewer=429
originally posted: 08/07/12 15:54:24
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2012 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Festival de Cannes For more in the 2012 Festival de Cannes series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Nantucket Film Festival For more in the 2012 Nantucket Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2012 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival For more in the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

6/17/13 Annie G Yes the acting is very good, but the rest of the film is lacking. 3 stars
8/28/12 damalc original, visually stunning, but ultimately empty 3 stars
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  27-Jun-2012 (PG-13)
  DVD: 04-Dec-2012


  DVD: 04-Dec-2012

Directed by
  Benh Zeitlin

Written by
  Benh Zeitlin
  Lucy Alibar

  Quvenzhané Wallis
  Dwight Henry

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