Monday, August 13, 2012

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD is a Powerful, Moving, Modern-Day Fairy Tale


- Haunting, lyrical, poetic, funny, and visually-stunning, BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD is a stunner that is among the best films of the year to date. This is a movie that shouldn't work. It's a modern-day fairy tale told in a magical-realism style - a tale of a great flood in the Louisiana bayou, crafted by twenty-something NYU grads. It features non-professional actors in its two most important on-screen roles. It's incredibly ambitious - thematically and visually, yet limited to an indie-film budget. This shouldn't work. But somehow, director Behn Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar make it work, and craft a poignant, powerful story - a movie that is both strikingly original and timeless.

As mentioned, the film plays out in a surrealistic, fairy-tale fashion. Beasts tells the tale of a fictional swampland village known as The Bathtub. The film takes place in a version of reality - maybe the future? - where The Bathtub is completely cut off from the rest of the civilized world. Beyond concrete gates and levees, an industrialized society - grey smokestacks and drab buildings - is visible. But within the confines of The Bathtub, a stubbornly isolationist community lives off the land. They grow and hunt their own food, make their own clothes, and live in ramshackle shelters cobbled together by hand. The community's children go to their own school, where they learn a mix of practical survival skills and passed-down folk wisdom. The people of the Bathtub are fiercely independent, and set in their ways - determined to continue living off the land and remaining apart from a world that's, mostly, left them behind in the swamp.

We learn about The Bathtub from the wide-eyed POV of young Hushpuppy, a scrappy six-year-old girl. Raised by her father, Wink, Hushpuppy has never known life beyond this place - and she's also never known her mother - who left for the outside world after Hushpuppy was born. As Beasts progresses, two things happen that shake up Hushpuppy's world, and that, eventually, force her on a far-reaching journey outside of her home. One is the long-prophecied storm - the great, fearsome storm that the people of The Bathtub knew would come, but that most stubbornly refused to flee or properly prepare for. The storm completely floods the village and forces those who stay into a deadly game os survival. And - for the outside world, the flood is an excuse to finally tear apart The Bathtub - to force its residents to relocate, and interrupt the years of isolation that the community has enjoyed. Of all the 'Tub's residents, it's Wink who's the most stubborn about not leaving. And that is the second thing that shakes up Hushpuppy's world - the fact that her father is becoming even more of a loose-cannon than usual - he's becoming unhinged, even deranged, driven mad by the outside world's encroachment on his home. More so than that, he is sick - maybe even dying - and Hushpuppy has to figure out how to survive in a world that, very quickly, has been turned totally on its head.

As Hushpuppy, young Quvenzhan√© Wallis is amazing. It's one of the best kid-acting performances I've seen - she makes Hushpuppy a pint-sized epic hero - inhumanly brave, yet all-too-terrified of what's happening to her formerly idyllic life. And her chemistry with Dwight Henry, who plays her father, is fantastic. Henry in general is just awesome as Wink - an unhinged force of nature. To think that he was not even a trained actor going into this film is mind-boggling. Somehow, Henry - a New Orleans resident - tapped into something inside himself and just unleashed it in this film. He makes Wink both noble and terrifying, a hero and his own worst enemy. This is one of my favorite film performances of the year so far - and I would love to see Henry receive a nomination come Oscar time for the remarkable work he does in this movie.

Visually, the film paints a vivid, dreamlike picture of both The Bathtub and the ominous outside world beyond its borders. It's a very immersive movie - thick with atmosphere. And when the Big Storm hits - it feels like an eruption of biblical proportions. Speaking of which, the other major thread in the film - and its most surreal plot-point - involves the mythical beasts known as the aurochs, who have been awakened from their ancient slumber by the coming of the storm. Reinforcing the idea of The Bathtub as a primal place, the movie flashes on occasion to the rising of the aurochs, and their migration back to their home from across the globe. Again, what might have been cheesy in lesser hands is instead awe-inspiring here. The visual f/x are fantastically done, and the mythological component of the film is elegantly integrated into the main story, adding to its epic nature.

My one complaint with the film, from a visual standpoint, is one that I've seen echoed by others: the overuse of shaky-cam. While appropriate for some scenes - like during the chaotic storm - oftentimes I felt the shakiness detracted from the storytelling, when more steady cinematography would have been more impactful.

But where I give this film a ton of credit is how deftly it balances its characters, story, and overarching themes. As I said, there was probably reason to be skeptical going in to this. Knowing the backgrounds of the filmmakers, and knowing that they were looking to make something very authentic to New Orleans culture ... you had to wonder if they could pull it off. You wondered if the film would come off feeling cloying and cliched. But I think Zeitlin and co. smartly avoid these traps. For one thing, the actors help to infuse the film with the authenticity it needs - no question. And for another, the surreal, fairytale storytelling style makes this world and everything in it - from the down-home accents to the cutesy character names - feel appropriate given the context. Point being: if you rolled your eyes when you heard that the main character of this film is a six-year-old named Hushpuppy, don't prejudge. In the context of the movie, it works.

What also makes the film work as well as it does is that there is, in fact, a real subtlety and evenhandedness in its themes. It's part of the brilliance of the Wink character - in some ways, you root for him. There is a nobility in his refusal to join the modern world, and in his desire to keep his daughter's experience pure and uncorrupted. But there is also a paranoia and madness to him - in being so stubborn, he's dooming himself, and potentially his daughter. He's not necessarily *right* in his conviction to stay in The Bathtub despite all reason - but he does, in his own way, have a *point.* And there is a certain, undeniable purity to the way he lives his life. When Wink and his fellow villagers are, eventually, forced away from Bathtub, there's an almost Tarzan-like quality in how out-of-place, afraid, and alienated they feel in the civilized world.

What I loved most though about BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD is that it's just filled with big, memorable, cinematic moments. I don't mean big, necessarily, in the blockbuster summer movie sense (though there are some of those), but big in terms of sheer dramatic power. As we watch Hushpuppy's perilous, coming-of-age journey, there are moments of terror, sadness, triumph, and adventure - moments that will make you misty-eyed, moments that will give you chills.

To that end, run out and go see what may well be one of the big, underdog cinematic stories of 2012.

My Grade: A-

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