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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild Review - by Joshua Handler

Hushpuppy in the opening of Beasts of the Southern Wild
Photo: Ben Richardson

Beasts of the Southern Wild Review
by Joshua Handler
2012, 93 minutes
Rated PG-13 for thematic material including child imperilment, some disturbing images, language, and brief sensuality

I am truly speechless.  Benh Zeitlin has created a true original that is stunning, wise, and emotionally satisfying.  Before I get ahead of myself, let me tell you what this movie is about.  Beasts follows a young girl, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhan√© Wallis) who lives with her dying father, Wink, in an isolated community called The Bathtub in southern Louisiana.  When a storm threatens to destroy The Bathtub and prehistoric beasts arise from thawed Arctic ice, Hushpuppy tries to survive and stay strong.

Winner of four Cannes Film Festival prizes and the Grand Jury and Excellence in Cinematography prizes at Sundance, this movie really shows that there are still filmmakers out there with true vision.  This film was shot on 16 mm and used handheld camerawork.  The 16 mm gives the film a very gritty, realistic feel, but that does not get in the way of the fantasy elements of the film.  

The opening of the film is one that gave me chills.  The film starts with narration by Hushpuppy, then soon afterwards erupts into a celebration complete with drinking and fireworks.  The pure joy and feel that the sequence captures is indescribable.  Benh Zeitlin said that "My approach to making movies is about crafting an energy, a feeling, and a way of life that the people that make movies with me can live.  It's about inventing a reality and populating it with the best people I know."  This is evident in Beasts as he transports us to another world and captures what it is like to be there, even though it is, in reality, this "other world" is in our own backyard. 

The Bathtub feels like nothing else I have ever seen.  It is made of scraps of different materials, everyone is poor, but they are rich in their sense of community.  They are happy people who get by on a simple living.  What Zeitlin shows in this film is that though people may be financially poor, they may be richer than the rest of the country in every other way.

Zeitlin and his co-writer Lucy Alibar, upon whose play this film is based, show how in The Bathtub, people are part of the earth as much as the earth is part of the people.  He shows how humans that live on the fringes of the earth are small pieces of the large universe, something Hushpuppy strongly believes in.  Because the people of The Bathtub are closer to nature, they are happier.  They are simpler.  In one point, Wink looks at some factories spewing pollution in the distance and comments on their ugliness.  In Beasts of the Southern Wild, real beauty comes from the plain and ordinary.  

Hushpuppy is a product of this community.  She is strong-willed and wise beyond her years, but lives simply.  Throughout the film, she is put to the test, and her wisdom helps her through.  Much of the wisdom came from Wink.  He teaches her to be brave and not to let anything bring her down.  Things happen, but those things should never bring you down.  

Though Hushpuppy may be wise and have an almost-full life, she wants to be held and unconditionally loved.  Her mother left when she was very little and she yearns for a mother-like figure, something that Wink is not.  Throughout part of the film, Hushpuppy looks for her mother.  What results (I won't spoil what happens) is beautiful and poignant.  

The character of Hushpuppy would not be what she is without the brilliant performance of Quvenzhan√© Wallis, a non-actress who turns out the performance of the year (so far).  She has a sweet, honest  innocence that few young actors have today, but also shows significant emotional depth.  We root for her character every step of the way.  Dwight Henry, another non-actor, plays Wink.  He, too, is mesmerizing every time he is onscreen.  He is brutal, comical, and ultimately caring.  

The music by Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin is simple and enchanting.  It is the finishing touch that makes the movie magical.  Much of the sense of the magical realism of the film comes from the music.  

Overall, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a must-see.  It is an experience to watch.  If there is one movie (besides Moonrise Kingdom) to see from this half of the year, this is the one.


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