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.
I wasn't a fan of the inclusion of the aurochs, but the effects
are impressively done for such a low budget effort.
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+