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Sundance 2012 Review - "Beasts Of The Southern Wild" (A Striking Feature Debut On Courage & Resiliency)

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act January 22, 2012 at 1:55AM

Ultimately an ode to human resilience and self-reliance, Beasts Of The Southern Wild is initially a little scattered, especially if you aren’t already familiar with the story; however by the second act, it all starts to come together and make sense. But what’s actually kind of interesting is that, without giving the plot away, there’s a structural chaos early on, which is accompanied by a blissful narrative. And as the film progresses into the second and third acts, there’s a reversal of that - the film’s structure seems to become much more orderly, while the narrative amplifies the tragedy.
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"Beasts of the Southern Wild"
Fox Searchlight "Beasts of the Southern Wild"

Ultimately an ode to human resilience and self-reliance, Beasts Of The Southern Wild is initially a little scattered, especially if you aren’t already familiar with the story; however by the second act, it all starts to come together and make sense. But what’s actually kind of interesting is that, without giving the plot away, there’s a structural chaos early on, which is accompanied by a blissful narrative. And as the film progresses into the second and third acts, there’s a reversal of that - the film’s structure seems to become much more orderly, while the narrative amplifies the tragedy.

But it’s the kind of film one would expect to see in huge doses every year at the Sundance Film Festival – an independent film (both in budget and spirit) that manages to challenge, astonish and inspire audiences.

Taking place in a fictional bayou village on a sinking landscape in Southern Louisiana called the Bathtub, where unadulterated joy is of most importance to the diverse group of characters who live there, even as it fills with water and its shores sink away in front of them, Beasts Of The Southern Wild (BOTSW) is grand in scope, and certainly ambitious for a film of its budget class.

In this forgotten but defiant bayou community that just seems to be completely cut off from the rest of the world by an expansive levee, 6-year old Hushpuppy (played wonderfully by newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis) is faced with more than any child her age should ever have to handle at anyone time; her mother died a long time ago, and she now lives with her beloved father Wink (played by Dwight Henry - another newcomer), an unpredictable firecracker of man who may have actually been happier if she were a boy (they arm wrestle, drink together, he repeatedly tells her "she's the man," is physical with her in the way a father would be to a son, and more), regularly instructing her on the importance of independence and self-reliance – essentially, survival as the world crumbles around them.

They live on the same compound, but under different roofs: him in a dilapidated shed; she in a trailer sitting on two oil drums, often left to her own devices, surrounded by a variety of semi-feral animals. Their communication (father and daughter) is frank and might seem uncaring initially, but there’s clearly a connection, an understanding and a mutual love and respect between them.

Existing just a step or two away from what we call reality, BOTSW will likely be best classified as magical realism - an apocalyptic comedy/tragedy about a little beast of a child, wise and courageous beyond her years, who has to find the strength to live and thrive at the end of the world... her world, specifically.

The audience is firmly planted in this world through the perspective of this singular, curious little girl, and thus its success depends entirely on the young non-actress asked to fill the character’s tiny, but simultaneously massive shoes. And Quvenzhane is a miniature force of nature with a natural onscreen charisma that’ll charm even the most brutal.

She’s a natural here; and her performance only seems to get better as the film progresses, and more is required of both her and the character she plays, as the story takes a tragic turn, presenting her with an even heavier burden to bear.

But I expect to see more of Ms Wallis in other films.

While there’s certainly a plot, I would say that of most importance here is the crafting of an energy, a feeling, a mood, brought about by the film’s combination of its sparkly cinematography, energetic handheld camera, immaculate production design, epic, sprawling soundtrack and believable performances by a group of non-actors.

There’s what I’d call a carefree goodness about these people, despite the circumstances they face. They’re like a ragtag group of humans (and other animals) of varying ages, gender, cultural backgrounds and personalities, who seem to have created this otherworldly place just for themselves, closed off from the rest of human civilization, and want nothing more than to just be left alone.

So there’s this ethereal quality to the film, but it’s still grounded in a reality we all would recognize. It’s as if director Benh Zeitlin has created what he may see as an ideal world in the village called the Bathtub, where life’s ills can simply be washed away down a drain.

Ultimately, this is *feeling* and Zeitlin's own romanticism, is what drives the narrative.

And while he has said that he was careful not to tie the film’s setting to any real place, time or issue so as not to kill its chances of being opened up to a wider, richer viewing experience and thus interpretation, it’s hard to watch this and not immediately think of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

The images of father and daughter floating in a makeshift boat on what used to be concrete, but now buried underneath several feet deep of water, were reminiscent of similar photos and news footage we all saw post Katrina.

Filled with whimsy, BOTSW also packs an emotional punch. There’s humor, joy, beauty, tragedy, hope and a spirit that moves. I don't know what its budget was, but I suspect it wasn't even close to mainstream industry averages; yet it looks fantastic; it was shot entirely on location (when you watch it, you'll see what makes that feat so impressive on a small budget); and there's even some CGI work.

It’s a strong first feature for director Zeitlin; bold and brave, much like its soup of characters - fearless warriors who believe that they can do anything, greeting their disposition with celebration instead of remorse or self-pity, led by the courage of an emotionally brave 6-year old girl named Hushpuppy.

All that said, in closing, I’d add this; as is often the case when films receive near-unanimous praise – in this case, heaps and mounds of it thus far – expectations will be extremely high for those who have yet to see it. My advice would be to temper those expectations. It’s undoubtedly a good film; I don’t think you’d find anyone who has seen the film who would disagree with that; Just don’t expect greatness. That’s too much of a burden for one film and filmmaker to carry.

Its bigger challenge is finding the right distribution company that understands an unconventional film like this (especially one centered around a young, black girl that defies all expectations) requires much attention, care and patience, before and when it enters the marketplace. 

There's no trailer yet; but I'm sure one will turn up soon enough.

This article is related to: Sundance 2012 Reviews


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