July 11, 2012

MOVIES: Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, 2012)

Beasts of the Southern Wild was the Grand Jury Prize winner at this year's Sundance festival, and the buzz surrounding the film has been deafening ever since. I got a bit nervous, though, when the trailers started coming out; they made it look as if the movie were going to be a Malick-esque exercise in poetic style over substance. While the movie does have a fair amount of over-the-top "look how pretty!" nonsense, there is an actual story (sort of) and characters to follow, so it's not a full-on Malick-style bore.

That's not to say that the movie has anything like a linear plot; it's a meandering, episodic look at life in The Bathtub, an impoverished community on a low-lying island off the coast of New Orleans, where 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry). There is a massive storm on the way, Wink has taken ill, and Hushpuppy sets out in search of her mother, who she has been told "swam away" when Hushpuppy was a baby. And the whole thing is punctuated by Hushpuppy's fantasies about the melting of the ice caps leading to the return of the aurochs, the giant beasts who dominated the world before the Ice Age.

It's hard to see those aurochs without being reminded of the equally pointless dinosaurs from The Tree of Life, and they call attention to the similarities between the movies, both of which attempt to mash together the intimate story of one family with grander, more cosmic concerns. But director Benh Zeitlin pays more attention to his characters than Malick does, allowing them to become people instead of mere archetypes.

At the center of the movie is the remarkable Quvenzhané Wallis (that's kwa-VEN-zhuh-NAY), who was 6 when the movie was filmed, and who is on screen for almost the entire film. At that age, it's hard to tell how much of what we're seeing is acting talent, how much is the ability to follow directions really well, and how much is pure charisma. Whatever it is, Wallis holds the screen completely, and she has a ferocious personality.

She even survives the rather overwrought narration that she's been given, which is ponderous and so ridiculously poetic that it makes Shakespeare look like Tom Clancy. She's such a potent force that I was carried through the movie's sillier flights of artistic fancy solely by the desire to see what happens to her next.

So yeah, the movie's a bit of a mess, and there are moments that simply don't work, but it is a wildly creative and ballsy mess that takes more chances in any single scene than six months' output from the Hollywood studios.

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