Friday, July 6, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Every once in a while a film has the power to take you off guard, utterly enthrall and engage in the motion of the possibilities and magical proponents of the medium.  And if not permanently, then for a brief time and space open up the idea of what makes cinema special, powerful and potent.  It would be hard pressing not to have thoughts of profundity while watching the captivating and strange new feature Beasts of the Southern Wild.  A bold and uncompromising, nearly utopian film that tackles a world, a journey and a fantastical realm of possibility; in short the film provides a special cinematic place because it travels a land that's never been seen before.  The film won the Grand Jury Prize at this years Sundance Film Festival, and the Camera D'Or (Best First Feature) at this years Cannes Film Festival, and while it may be difficult to explain its wonder, it's easy to relish its vision and scope of field while experiencing such a difficult, nondescript piece of artistry and gumption.  While the accolades and acclaim may feel daunting, and may ultimately be the film undoing as it slowly widens into territories outside the art house, one thing is certain-- Beasts of the Southern Wild will retain a magical place in the heartbeat of independent American cinema.

Brazenly and acutely directed by first time feature filmmaker Benh Zeitlin, Beasts establishes a time and place so sufficiently, as well as a mood that's nearly defiant in its tonal optimism.  Set in an outsider community off the coast of New Orleans, a safe haven-- exodus perhaps-- that treads outsides the norms of convention.  The locals refer to their home as "The Bathtub."  The most enchanting dweller is a six-year-old named Hushpuppy, and is played with singular, naturalistic grace by newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis.  A strong, independent searcher-- she's utterly enchanted by the heartbeats of her family animals.  Strong willed, if but one that's feared and lost more than any little girl should.  Her father is Wink (Dwight Henry), a loutish boozy whose anger and seemingly abusive behavior belie a sensitive, if misguided soul whose motivations, while sinister, are nothing but to nurture and develop the strength that Hushpuppy needs to survive, not just in The Bathtub, but in life.

Zeitlin presents Beasts with a documentary-style flow, an ease that implores a sense of watching and listening without judgement nor finicky earnestness.  The joy of life in The Bathtub is presented in a serene beatific prologue that constitutes that everyday is treated as a holiday, that life shall be lived and loved-- a montage of sort that would likely make Terrence Malick proud, and perhaps a bit jealous.  But a storm does start to brew-- either a statement, an artistic commentary of pre- or post-Hurricane Katrina life, an indictment of eco-fragility, or both, or neither, Beasts of the Southern Wild is more a film to be savored in mood and temperament than preachy, prickly encoded messages.  The weather does get rough and nearly destroys The Bathtub, while drunken Wink doggedly tries to weather the storm, and intrepid Hushpuppy defiantly makes her own decisions.  Most of the power and charm comes from Wallis' utterly magical performance-- she's the real beast and deserving of whatever unholy acclaim this role gets her.  B+

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