Jul 23, 2012

Thoughts on Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Director: Benh Zeitlin; Screenwriters: Benh Zeitlin, Lucy Alibar
Cast: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly
My Grade: A-/A

- There’s a certain degree of expectation that comes with a film that manages to win over critics and audiences alike at festivals all over the world. Beasts of the Southern Wild manages to exceed that level of expectation. I understand that I’m making the burden even larger on the shoulders of the film for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, but what can I say; this is as astonishing a debut as last year’s Sundance darling and you know how much I loved that one. Although, whereas that film exhibited the confidence of its director in his cool, calm and controlled presence behind the camera, Beasts is unhinged and energetic.

- While we’re on the topic, let’s talk about Benh Zeitlin. What a terrific first film this is for him. Magical realism is a tricky realm for any director, let alone a newcomer, but in his vision, fantasy is so seamlessly integrated with reality that the boundaries between them have been rendered unimportant. The audience is lost in Hushpuppy’s world; we live in her real and imagined spaces. And for all its unruliness, Beasts is actually very carefully constructed, meticulously art directed and intimately photographed. The score is rousing and the mixers incorporate sound into the film’s narrative. This film can be dissected and praised for every element, but as a whole, it’s even better than the sum of its very impressive parts.

- It’s anyone’s call as to how strong a director’s influence is on the performances of amateur actors. It’s different from film to film and actor to actor, I’m sure. Whatever the case may be here, Zeitlin, Wallis and Henry all deserve a world of credit. The unique father-daughter relationship between Wink and Hushpuppy is formed so naturally, one can hardly believe they’re not related in real life. But no, they’re not even professional actors. Henry, a baker by trade, is a bit reminiscent of Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life: as stern and harsh as Pitt’s Mr. O’Brien, but unlike him, completely in control of himself and capable of expressing emotions, however questionable his parenting methods may be. Henry keeps us at a distance just as he does with his daughter, but never leaves us in any doubt that there's a softer side to him. One of the film’s most powerful moments is when that side of him finally comes to the foreground. He allows all of our presumptions about him, right or wrong, to fall in their place in one moment. The other end of the spectrum is the auspiciously talented Wallis. Her Hushpuppy is a force of nature, an ingenious mix of vulnerability, childish imagination and the fortitude that comes with a forced early confrontation with adulthood. This is an inspired performance from a 6-year-old whose career -if she decides to take on that path - I'll be following carefully.

- Despite being set in the post-Katrina South, one of the great things about Beasts is that politics is never transitioned from subtext to text. This isn’t an environmentalist film – though one would have to be blind to miss certain messages – and it isn’t for or against any party or ideology. Above all else, this film is about a community who want to fight for their survival, about a family who do their best to hold on to each other in spite of the hardships, and about how we all interact with nature.

- Beasts of the Southern Wild is the year’s best film so far. It will surely have a spot in my annual Top Dozen.

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