Monday, January 28, 2013
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Director: Ben Zeitlin
Starring: Quvenzhane Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly, Gina Montana
Running Time: 93 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
It can sometimes be a a drag going into a film knowing it's a Best Picture nominee. Unless I'm completely shutting myself out from the news or internet before the actual viewing comes around, the story surrounding the movie is usually at risk of taking on a life of its own. It's easy to fall into the trap of assessing its worthiness for Oscars rather than analyzing what's on screen. The situation's even a little more extreme with Benh Zeitlin's borderline fantasy drama, Beasts of the Southern Wild since there's a built-in inspirational underdog story already attached. It's the director's first feature. It was made for next to nothing. It's about poverty. It stars non-professional actors. The protagonist is a little girl. The actress playing her is youngest ever Best Actress nominee. All these details would no doubt make for a feel-good documentary about the making of the movie, but at the end of the day none of that matters if the film rises to the occasion, as this mostly does. I wasn't sure where it was going at first using the shaky cam, documentary style approach, but it quickly gets where it needs to go, then soars for the remainder of its hour and a half, which seems to disappear in a flash. Zeitlin makes the absolute most of what he has, creating something that actually can be categorized as an experience.
Five-year old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) and her quick-tempered but physically ailing father Wink (Dwight Henry) are residents of the "Bathtub," an impoverished Louisiana bayou community facing an impending storm. In school, Hushpuppy is told stories of mythological, prehistoric creatures called Auruchs that were once frozen in the arctic but she imagines escaping from the melted ice caps and heading toward the Bathtub. With her father briefly missing, she's left to fend for herself, and accidentally starts a dangerous fire before he returns, angrier than ever, with his health rapidly worsening. With the storm baring down on the bayou and the threat of forced evacuation looming, Hushpuppy sets out to find her absent mother and come to terms with a new life that looks increasingly like it won't include her father.
The film's greatest success comes in its seamless ability to meld fantasy and reality, at points feeling like post-Katrina docudrama told through the prism of a child's imagination. Adding to the authenticity is the fictional location, which never for a second feels fictional. We don't doubt eroded an impoverished areas in the bayou just like this really exist and likely went a long way in providing the inspiration for the Bathtub. In fact, we know they do. While casting non-actors for any small or large-scale project is generally considered a huge risk, it fits just fine in this situation, a film that's shooting for complete, unrehearsed reality. And it's about time to dispel the ridiculous myth that voice-over narration is a lazy storytelling crutch despite the fact it's proven countless times how invaluable it can be when utilized properly. Wallis brings an innocent, natural curiosity to her Oscar nominated role that carries into her unforgettable delivery of the lyrical, almost poetic, narration of events that truly feel like they're being filtered through this child's perspective.
As surprising as it is that Wallis has never acted before, it might be the sturdy, volcanic presence of Dwight Henry that casts the largest shadow over the film. Their father-daughter relationship is an emotional rollercoaster, and for any (false) accusations that the somehow script paints poverty in a whimsical light, no one can claim this dynamic is in any way sugar-coated. He's really rough with her. Uncomfortably so. Yet we never lose sight of where he's coming from. That becomes even more apparent when the story shifts in its second act and the lives of the Bathtub's occupants are shaken up. They don't take kindly to anyone coming in and displacing them from their homes because it's theirs, no matter how hellish the living conditions.
Special mention should be made of composer Dan Romer and Zeitlin's moving score, which somehow wasn't nominated for an an Academy Award despite easily being the strongest aspect of the entire film. Chill-inducing from the second you hear the opening chords, it's one of those instantly recognizable pieces of music bound for a future of being played over trailers and video packages as everyone wonders which movie it came from. Even those who don't quite grasp what exactly Zeitlin was aiming for here (and I'm still not completely sure I do) will have trouble denying there's some really impressive filmmaking at work and it'll be interesting to see him try to top himself going forward. Whether this holds up over time I'm a little less certain of, but then again, the the same could be said for just about anything.