Beasts of the Southern Wild

PhotobucketBeasts of the Southern Wild is a spellbinding document. Hushpuppy is a fearless 6 year old girl that lives with her father Wink in a place she refers to as “The Bathtub” – a southern community along the Louisiana Delta. Hushpuppy and Wink live in abject poverty. This tale exposes a subculture of which many Americans may be unaware. The utter squalor suggests a third world country and not the U.S. at all. The presentation is like anthropological evidence of a civilization hidden from view.

Director Benh Zeitlin has assembled a cast of locals with no acting experience. Dwight Henry who plays Wink, owns and runs a cafe in New Orleans in real life. Here he plays a stern man that practices a version of tough love with his daughter to keep her prepared for a rough existence. At least they’re surrounded by a close-knit community that support one another. Quvenzhané Wallis is a revelation as Hushpuppy. She casually observes everything around her with keen senses. Fortunately Wallis is untrained and natural, and she’s flawless. I hesitate to even call it acting because Zeitlin has wisely allowed her to simply be. Witness the tender display where she holds the tiny critters she discovers close to her face. It’s just as you would listen to the ocean in a seashell held up to your ear. Her poetic voice-overs help educate the viewer. One on one banter is irrelevant. It’s the visual that becomes the focus. Many scenes simply rely on the emotion she registers on her expressive face. The lens lovingly registers every expression upon her countenance.

Beasts subverts the very conventions of film. The filmmakers have filtered the narrative through the stream of consciousness of a young girl. It’s fiercely innovative, highly distinctive and peculiarly told. This doesn’t rely of the traditional methods of storytelling. It’s filmed rather haphazardly and much of the discourse is indecipherable. But all of these techniques actually serve to heighten the drama of a bewitching little girl. As she drifts through life, her observances of adult conversations can be confusing. Dialogue fades in and out, people talk over each other, local jargon is used – it’s an admittedly free-form script. At times I almost wished for subtitles. As a child’s grasp of the conversation of a roomful of adults is superficial at best, so too is ours of their discussions. This cursory comprehension of what is being talked about helps define our intrepid main character. Her understanding or lack thereof is also our understanding. This allows the audience to identify with her all the more.

The chronicle is highlighted by a gorgeous poeticism . It presents these people, without the artifice of Hollywood. As Hushpuppy’s world gets tougher, temperatures rise and the ice caps melt causing mythical prehistoric creatures called “aurochs” to run loose toward their area. The rising waters threaten their region. Shades of Hurricane Katrina, but past the politics that would divert attention from these fascinating people. Wink disappears for a period and we’re unclear as to where he has gone. He later returns wearing a hospital gown, but still fails to give an explanation. Just what exactly is going on? And where is her mother?  These are questions that Hushpuppy has as well as she attempts to locate her missing parent. The action is very much filtered through he eyes of a toddler. We aren’t privy to adult discussions. Hushpuppy is left in the dark much in the same way. The cinematography utilizes a shaky cam, often from a low vantage point as if Hushpuppy were carrying the camera herself. In adopting this approach, director Benh Zeitlin has created a much more heartbreaking work of art from Lucy Alibar’s one-act play. While the events unfold, they tend to meander. We realize there really is a story – just not a traditionally told one. The footage is raw. However, Beasts of the Southern Wild becomes an even more elemental picture because of it.

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23 Responses to “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

  1. Markus Robinson Says:

    I really enjoyed reading this. Great review (one of your best)..its just a shame that this review was so much better than the film.

    • The film is an emotional experience. It’s like trying to explain why a piece of music makes me cry or baby makes me smile. I’m sorry the film didn’t affect you as much as it did me. Oh well we can’t agree on everything.

  2. As you already saw, I liked this one but didn’t love it like so many others seem to have. Still, this is a flick with a vision that deserves to be seen by all and hopefully it gets a lot of these people’s names out there. Good review Mark.

    • It’s still in very limited release (only 81 theaters total) so it remains to be seen if this will catch on. I saw you gave it 8.5/10. That’s a pretty stellar review.

  3. I’m dying to see this, Mark, but it’s certainly not playing anywhere near me. I’ll be on a plane flight to San Francisco around my birthday in October, so I hope I’ll be able to watch this and Moonrise Kindgom on the flight. (Moonrise is near the end of playing near me, I believe, and I haven’t gotten a chance to go see it yet.) Great review.

  4. moviewriting Says:

    Nice review, Mark! I am starting to love documentaries more and more, so I’ll definitely have to check this one out; it sounds so interesting

    • When I said Beasts of the Southern Wild is a spellbinding document, I meant that in the sense that it’s a record of a way of life. It’s a fictional account so not a documentary per se, although it does almost feel like one at times.

  5. Mark, Your reveiw is so interesting and beutifully written, it is hard to believe a movie could live up to the review. I most likely won’t be seeing this movie because I only watch things when they come out on DVDs and this may never since it is in so few theaters .

  6. Good review Mark. This is one of my favorite movies so far this year. Did you read my review?

    • I did and I enjoyed it very much. So much so thatI tried to leave a comment, but I kept getting: Internal Server Error. I just tried again and got the same message. :-(

  7. Nice review, Mark. This seems like one of those pictures that will divide critics. At this point, hearing your description, even though you praised it, I don’t know if I’ll enjoy it.

  8. Another good one, but I’m sure you’ve heard that enough, lol.

    Also just posted my review for this, I think the only thing I differ from you is that I’m not a huge fan of subversive filming styles but aside from that I completely agree in that the strength and emotional rawness of the characters make this movies stick in your head long after it ends.

    The funny thing for me is that I actually appreciated it more the day after seeing it than when I was actually watching, which in my opinion is the mark of a truly great film

  9. What a great surprise of a movie. Young actress was amazing. Felt all her emotions.

  10. Holy Smoke. With all the dreary imitations that come down the pike these days you forget that every once in a while a movie still gets made that’s truly imaginative, both in style and substance. None of that Grapes-of-Wrathian pity the poor people stuff. This is a tribute to a bunch of people who live the way they do because that’s the way they choose to do it.

    Interesting comparison with “Extremely Loud”. Both stories show kids having to deal with tragedy (different in an important way though, since here it’s naturally-occurring rather than intentional), in the world at large and affecting their fathers in particular. The whole course of THIS film is the progress the girl makes in handling her difficulties in ways her Dad and her community approve. At the end the success she’s achieved lets her dismiss the beasts of the southern wild; and the knowledge that she’s got it right and the notion that it’s all going to be remembered is the reward that puts a positive cap on the whole thing.

    • Some interesting similarities. Hushpuppy is much more likable than little Oskar Schell however. I was really drawn to this little girl. Seems like you were as well.

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