BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD


Beasts of the Southern Wild is a story told through the eyes of a child, with all the awe and wonder of such a subjective viewpoint.  It has the same fairy tale quality of such movies as The Night of the Shooting Stars and The Night of the Hunter as well as more realistic films as To Kill a Mockingbird and Shane.  It is a wonderful film, perhaps the best of the year so far.   The narrator and our guide to this other world is Hushpuppy, a pint size little girl who lives with her alcoholic and ailing father in a place call the Bathtub, an outlying area on the other side of a levee that protects the larger, nearby city.  The residents of the Bathtub are free spirit types who want little to nothing to do with civilization.  At first one empathizes with this fierce independence; there is something grand and moving about it.  On the downside, though, the result is often alcoholism and cruelty, as well as an inability to protect themselves when disaster strikes.  And strike it does.  First Hushpuppy’s father has a heart attack.  And then the rain comes.  And while the city is protected by the levee, the Bathtub is flooded by salt water that eventually destroys all plant and fish life.  All the while Hushpuppy voices her childlike view of what is going on in voice over narrative while imagining the approach of wild beasts that have been released by the polar ice cap melting.  What happens next is the conflict between civilization and people who just want to be left alone.  I can’t quite agree with the ultimate conclusion here, that the people are somehow better off by returning to the Bathtub; I certainly would never want to live there.  But I found the unfolding of Hushpuppy’s story fascinating as the plot takes her all over the place, from a Fourth of July type celebration complete with tons of seafood and fireworks, to a shelter for people fleeing the floods, to perhaps the oddest place of all, a floating whorehouse.   Benh Zeitlin directed the film and wrote it along with Lucy Alibar, a first film for each of them, using non-professionals.  But Zeitlin makes excellent use of their amateurishness.  He gets a deft and fascinating performance out of Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy.  But perhaps the strongest performance is by Dwight Henry as her father Wink, a character both kind and cruel who rages and rages against the dying of the light.  He’s one of those awful people you never would want to meet in real life but are fascinating within the safe distance of a movie screen.   But in the end, perhaps the greatest kudos should go to Dan Romer who, with Zeitlin, wrote the sole stirring anthem that punctuates Hushpuppy’s story.  At the end, Hushpuppy tells us that she and all of the people in the Bathtub are all part of the universe, and that no matter what happens, they’ll keep going, as they march back home accompanied by that transcendental music.   It’s a deeply emotional ending to a very unusual and captivating film.

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