Thursday, January 3, 2013

Beasts of the Southern Wild Provides a Riveting and Distinctive Experience

It won't get much accolades, but the set design in this movie
is flat-out amazing.

This past weekend, I caught up with Beasts of the Southern Wild, the independent film that lit up Sundance last year and has been garnering mentions on quite a few top 10 lists. I found it to be a quality effort and admired it greatly, despite an overreaching scope.
The film focuses on six-year old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), and the complicated and combustible relationship she has with her sometimes rough, sometimes tender alcoholic father Wink (Dwight Henry). The two reside in the Bathtub, an impoverished offshore marshland isolated by the levees from the far more industrialized ports of New Orleans. With the melting of the icecaps looming large, flooding is an impending threat and so many in the community have taken to converting their ramshackled houses into arcs that might possibly weather the storm.

The takeaway from the film is just how distinctive the setting and characters are. It’s rare to see any movie, let alone a feature debut, this soaked in atmosphere, and there’s a certain joy to the way director Benh Zeitlin immerses the viewer into the majestic naturalism of the lowland marsh. From the euphoric revelry of holiday celebrations (Hushpuppy says the Bathtub has “more holidays than the whole rest of the world”) to the simple image of Hushpuppy floating on a fishing boat cobbled together from the bed of a pickup truck, the film is awash with beautiful imagery. Use of a handheld camera enhances the raw and spontaneous nature of what’s on screen, and the excellent score (which Zeitlin apparently co-composed) augments the visuals perfectly.

Even more arresting are the performance by the amateur leads. Wallis has justly been praised for her wide-eyed and spirited performance. She is a total force of nature here, so authentically particular and in the moment at all times. Henry, a father of five who has made his living as a baker, takes a backseat to Wallis, but is also revelatory in a very tricky role. Wink is ill-fit to be the sole caregiver of a little girl. He’s mostly a drunk brute, prone to outbursts of anger and cruel distancing. But, he also has moments of immense tenderness, and proves to be a proud protector and encouraging teacher. During the film he claims “my only purpose in life is to teach her how to make it” and his attempts to do so lead to the most emotional, tense and affecting scenes in the piece.

I wasn't a fan of the inclusion of the aurochs, but the effects
are impressively done for such a low budget effort.
Zeitlin does misstep slightly by taking a Malicky approach and attempting to set the story as a small piece of a far more ambitious tapestry. In voiceover, Hushpuppy repeatedly makes comments like “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece... the whole universe will get busted” and “I see that I am a little piece of a big, big universe, and that makes it right,” but they seem to be grand claims that stand separate and unconnected from the narrative we’re actually watching. Yes, this is a film about a little girl who comes face-to-face with death, loss and the fragility of existence, but the universality of it all might have been better left implied.

A strained magical element concerning the approaching aurochs, giant extinct cattle released when icy imprisonment when the icecaps melted, never really clicks either. I’m sure more ardent fans will claim metaphorical association, but it’s all just a little too on-the-nose and works against the subtle beauty of the core story.

Despite these grievances, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a riveting, poetic and original experience that deserves to be labeled as one of the year’s best films. Due to his work here, Zeitlin has understandably become a hot name, and I’m glad for it. A director/writer/composer who can coax such unique naturalistic performances out of amateurs and expertly transport viewers to an unknown world is a director whose next film is worth getting excited about. B+