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Review: The South Will Rise, But Not Like You Expected, In The Pagan, Powerful 'Beasts Of The Southern Wild'

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by James Rocchi
June 26, 2012 4:02 PM
11 Comments
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Beasts Of The Southern Wild

Written and directed by Benh Zeitlin, whose short, "Glory at Sea," was shot through with purpose and promise, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is as stirring and striking a film as you could wish for. Shot and set in a Louisiana community called The Bathtub, on the wrong side of the levees that stop the water from encroaching on civilization, it's at heart the story of a little girl, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) who lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry). That synopsis does not do the film justice, though, as the story -- based on a play by Lucy Alibar -- incorporates a flood that not only drowns The Bathtub but also huge, prehistoric beasts -- Aurochs -- returning to life from the frozen icecaps and stalking, gigantically, towards Hushpuppy's world. It's a flawed comparison -- and indeed, any comparison for a work as completely and startlingly unique as this will be flawed -- but I kept imagining "Beasts of the Southern Wild" as a pagan, powerful, Godless (but not loveless or hopeless) variation on "The Tree of Life," where parents and children cope with the passage of time and the end of life in a series of moments built as much on visual poetry as character interactions.

I can envision many audience members being turned off by "Beasts of the Southern Wild." Wink and Hushpuppy live in brutal poverty and squalor, and squeamish viewers will be put off and perhaps shudder in revulsion by the lack of refrigeration, bloated drowned livestock rotting on the roadside or the constant drinking of still-made white liquor. At the same time, if the purpose of cinematic storytelling is to create a world -- and you could argue that it is -- that's what Zeitlin has done here, aided and abetted by sister Eliza Zeitlin's art and his cast of non-actors. The opening festival we see take place in The Bathtub -- full of art and fire, liquor and shouting -- is so bizarre and unique as to verge on science fiction instead of social realism. And there are people in America this poor, and Zeitlin neither ennobles nor disparages them.

"Beasts Of The Southern Wild."
"Beasts Of The Southern Wild."

Hushpuppy's world is full of strangeness -- the way she "speaks" to her absent mother is a haunting bit of creation, with an unseen voice and a Michael Jordan jersey standing in for that empty space where a mother should be. Zeitlin creates a world of magical realism here, with lights and voices and monsters in the night, but also with peril and danger in every moment. A scene where Hushpuppy, cooking alone, starts a fire in the shack where she lives across the "yard" of weeds and trash from Wink, is viscerally horrifying even as you wonder how Zeitlin got his shots and scenes without killing anyone.

Like Terrence Malick's work, this is a story of life in the state of nature -- but a nature red in tooth and claw, a nature without the hand of God to move it. Indeed, the word "God" is never heard in the film; Hushpuppy speaks about the working of the universe, and how, if you listen, "everybody's heart be beatin' and squirtin' and saying things we can't understand." And after the waters drown The Bathtub (the Biblical Old Testament allusions are here -- in a world of mud and blood and fire and flood), Hushpuppy and her father are taken to a shelter; the sight of fluorescent lighting and drop-tile ceilings are like something out of the more sterile and startling inventions of "2001." Wink is ill, and needs to protect Hushpuppy; she wants to stay with him, and find her mother, and neither of those is going to go as she, or we, might have imagined or hoped.

William Carlos Williams said that "the pure products of America go crazy," and much of "Beasts of the Southern Wild" speaks to that observation, from the drinking and the stubborn refusal to leave The Bathtub to the meat and murder of daily life there. (At one point, an informal teacher for the community's feral and filthy children dumps out a bucket of crawfish and exclaims "Meat. I'm meat, you're meat … everything is meat.") When the end comes -- death and despair and hope and healing in one bitter and beautiful celebration -- Hushpuppy explains that one of the things her father taught her was how, "You have to take care of things smaller and sweeter than you are." There's no heaven promised or present here -- a bright, blaring sign makes a blunt joke to that effect -- but our small heroine notes that "one day, the children of the future will know … that there was a girl named Hushpuppy, and she lived in The Bathtub with her daddy." "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is as unique as it is uneven, as unforgettable as it is uncomfortable, and trembles with the energy, bravura and passion of director Zeitlin, his cast and his crew like some rough animal snorting and stamping with horrible wonder and the possibility of both loss and understanding. [A]

This is a reprint of our review from the Sundance Film Festival.

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11 Comments

  • Larsha | December 30, 2012 4:37 AMReply

    This was unmitigated American rubbish. Totally over embellished in terms of cinematography , sound , visual effects.......spare me it was dreadful on all fronts . Sentimental , pretentious...oh goodness .................don't go ,save your money , and more importantly your time . It is actually a film about child abuse........not a topic any of us should find amusing or entertaining.

  • dan voltz | June 27, 2012 8:46 PMReply

    This is a beautifully written review... first class.

  • kitcon | June 27, 2012 11:35 AMReply

    I am sure there are a lot of allegorical and metaphorical allusions in the film that I missed but it just wasn't sufficiently engaging for me to make it worth the effort to figure them all out. I have no problem with poverty and death being shown as it actually is but the story and characters just didn't draw me in.

  • DJ | June 27, 2012 3:23 PM

    Most of the allusions, I think, were common folk tale tropes. After thinking about some -- after the screening -- it's occurred to me how bleak and secular the view of this film is. Sort of a sanitized sentimentality of the west's fascination with eastern, impersonal, quasi-reincarnation spirituality, which is, ironically enough, many in the indigenous east find unsatisfying and inadequate.

    The "circle of life" Lion King ethos: death is a natural part of life, and we're one particle in the universe. Steve Jobs articulates the same ethos at his viral grad speech at Stanford.
    It's head scratching incoherence from the way most people practically live on the ground: fighting for life and life's virtues, battling issues like poverty, injustice, denigration of life under brutal regimes. They're certainly not postures taken to "perpetuate" the cycle of life and death worldview packaged with a bow (and dollars) by Deepak Chopra and friends.

  • Priss | June 26, 2012 4:54 PMReply

    White made genius with magical negroes! Hipster paradise!

  • ska-triumph | June 26, 2012 9:46 PM

    I saw it too; I respectfully disagree. It was plainly a story of magical realism, set in an alternate Louisiana USA. I thought it was a grittier cousin to WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE.

    In the 21st century, are Magical Negroes not allowed to save their own community versus, what's usually associated with the term, the White protagonists' lives? What was so filthy, unrooted and unsubstantive to you? Was it not about this little girl's quest for understanding mortality while seeking immortality?

    Do you think a non-White non-hipster couldn't or wouldn't want African-American girls to also be in a whimsical, quasi-surrealist quest on film? If you didn't know a White dude and his film collective made this film (which is impossible with insider awareness), would you have thought the film still unmmoving; a hipster's paradise? Sorry for all the questions but I don't get straight-up dismissal of something that's clearly reaching for something greater than most indies that, in my opinion, come through the pipeline.

  • K | June 26, 2012 7:55 PM

    Using the word Hipster is now the new Emo before that it was Scene and before that it was Goth. Also don't forget to call every movie pretentious.

  • Priss | June 26, 2012 7:41 PM

    I've seen it. Nothing about this privileged drivel was drowned out by anything worth anything. I found it unrooted and unsubstantive. Just white boys playing with toys known as black people. Filth draped in hipster aesthetics.

  • David | June 26, 2012 5:29 PM

    No, man. I'd be the first one to call out the white industrial entertainment complex but after watching the film, the experience of it leaves you with an entirely different awareness and emotional effect: it's too otherworldly in a way to be relegated to a timely race-trope argument.

    Not saying that it won't draw that criticism -- considering the crew is entirely all white -- but the childlike wonder of it, and the fantastic performance of that little girl -- sort of drowns you out from the realism of the white-black dichotomy.

  • yer | June 26, 2012 4:29 PMReply

    This looks like George Washington + fantasy. Is it similar to Green's amazing film?

  • David | June 26, 2012 4:59 PM

    A bit. I'd argue that DGG's photography, and hence its overall visual landscape, is much more polished, grandiose, luminous ... giving the worlds of George, his compatriots and their environs a much more beautific light.

    Zeitlin's world, like Green's, is also expressionistic but his camera techniques (not the cartography of emotions he photographs) is too reflective of the en vogue, handheld techniques of the day (think everything from Half-Nelson to Pariah, et al.)

    That said, Rocchi nails it here in his critique: Beasts' mythological view is stark and secular. Compare it to say the universe and mythologies of Tolkien's and you'll get, tonally and philosophically, a very different view of universe, redemption and notions of 'God.' That said, for a first film, this is a wondrous achievement. Zeitlin went for it in a hugely ambitious way and left windows into a magical universe. Congrats to him for it.

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