Saturday, December 15, 2012
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature film Beasts of the Southern Wild is nothing if not original. This mythic tale about a coastal Louisiana community struggling to survive an environmental apocalypse is fierce, scruffy, passionate and proud: It sews its own freak flag out of reclaimed materials, then lets it fly. It’s hard not to admire Zeitlin's ambitious vision, his do-it-yourself aesthetic, and the commitment of his cast and crew—a kind of utopian collective whose jobs often overlapped, as the local, nonprofessional actors collaborated on set-building and other technical tasks. But that doesn’t mean the result of their labor is exactly what you’d call a “good movie.”
Loosely based on the play Juicy and Delicious by the director’s childhood friend Lucy Alibar, who also collaborated with him on the screenplay, Beasts follows the displacements of a little girl, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father, Wink (Dwight Henry) before, during, and after a natural disaster of increasingly massive proportions. Yes, Hushpuppy and Wink’s fictional hometown, a below-sea-level island known as the Bathtub, experiences a Katrina-like event, a hurricane followed by a levee-breaking flood. But there’s also a mass die-off of land animals for no clear reason. And in a sci-fi/fantasy subplot that’s the movie’s boldest gambit, a herd of aurochs—extinct prehistoric creatures that, in Zeitlin’s vision, become flesh-eating wild boars the size of buses—thaws out in the melting polar icecaps and comes back to life.
Amid all this chaos, 6-year-old Hushpuppy and her father must unite their scattered but loyal fellow Bathtubbers in a joint project of bare-bones survival. They build a floating shelter out of flood debris, stocking it with chickens, goats, and potted vegetables. During the day Hushpuppy and her dad set out on separate fishing expeditions in their own boat, fashioned from a severed pickup-truck bed mounted on barrels. At one point, Wink hatches an ill-planned attempt to blow up a levee in order to drain a flooded patch of land; later, Hushpuppy and three other children swim out to a floating brothel to eat deep-fried gator and dance with prostitutes. There are multiple scenes of drunken crab-shelling parties that seem to have been filmed during actual drunken crab-shelling parties.
A child's fight for survival in an embattled bayou weaves pure magic. It's at No 8 in [The Guardian's] roundup of the year's greatest films:
Wink (Dwight Henry) and his daughter Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) live in the Bathtub. The water's been rising since the last big storm. Wink's getting sick, Hushpuppy's learnt that he won't be there for ever. So she's telling herself a story. It's a story of a girl called Hushpuppy and her daddy and her momma, who went missing. About the unreal, beautiful life of poverty that this community lives under. About the water that's rising and the animals that are dying and the aurochs (giant hairy pig monsters) racing to find Hushpuppy and tear her dream apart.
It's cool now – as its chances of an Oscar concretise – to have a dig at Beasts of the Southern Wild. To label Benh Zeitlin's vision of the bayou voyeuristic and vilify him as another example of a film-maker from the big city wallowing in America's backwaters. But to suggest that Beast is exploitative is to tie this masterful piece of magic realism too close to the real world. Zeitlin is showing us America beset by climate change, poverty and class segregation, but he's primarily showing us this world as built – out of nothing – by a five-year-old. This could be post-Katrina Louisiana. This could be the end of the world. The film won't tell you which, and in a sense it doesn't matter.
Chris Tookey of Mail Online wonders what a washout Beasts Of The Southern Wild is:
Verdict: The drivel runs through it Rating: No stars
Arriving here on a tsunami of enthusiastic acclaim is Beasts Of The Southern Wild, a film shot in Louisiana with non-professional actors.
It has won the Camera d’Or at Cannes and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival, and attracts five-star reviews wherever it goes.
It’s absolutely dreadful, but will appeal to the prejudices of anyone who found Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life a timeless masterpiece or David Gordon Green’s bore-athon George Washington life-affirming.
Writes Philip French in The Observer:
There have been a number of movies dealing with the gulf coast of Louisiana after the disaster of hurricane Katrina, the most notable being Spike Lee's four-hour documentary When the Levees Broke made in 2006, and the oddest being Werner Herzog's cop movie, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, three years later. The setting apart, neither has much in common with the low-budget independent production Beasts of the Southern Wild, a fable set in a remote corner of the bayou where a mixed-race community of eccentrics live on floating huts or primitive houses raised on stilts. They get around on improvised boats and share their homes with the domestic animals they feed off. The central character is the six-year-old Hushpuppy who lives with her ailing father Wink, a hard-drinking fisherman. Everything is filtered through her wondering mind, and she acts as a precocious, puzzled commentator.
An eloquent, apocalyptical schoolmistress, who teaches all the local kids in the one-room schoolhouse, has fed her ideas about the interdependence of everything in the world and the imminent possibility of radical change in the environment through global warming. In a tale where stark realism, surrealism and dream intermingle, she survives the Noah-like deluge, is forcibly taken in by well-meaning doctors and social workers, and escapes to recover her old life and take off on a journey in search of her mother.
Director Benh Zeitlin's debut, which won the Camera d’Or at Cannes festival, plunges into magic realism with unmissable results, writes Tim Robey in The Telegraph:
Few American debuts in recent years have announced a talent as singular as that of Benh Zeitlin, the blazingly gifted director and co-writer of Beasts of the Southern Wild. A contained explosion of imaginative feeling, this dippy and spectacular plunge into magic realism has been picking up prizes around the world, and won the Camera d’Or award for best first film at Cannes. It bustles with ideas, resplendent visuals and a battered yet proud humanity. On all fronts, it’s simply unmissable.
Much of the attention has focused on the remarkable lead performance of Quvenzhané Wallis, six years old when it was shot: she plays Hushpuppy, doughty resident of a deprived and isolated bayou community called the Bathtub, on the coastal side of Louisiana’s levees. Her mother has left, and she lives only half in the care of her sick father (Dwight Henry), whose rusted-out shack is a distance away from the trailer she sleeps in.
Hushpuppy is no holy innocent but a fizzy little sprite with a face like a clenched fist, facing everything that comes her way – principally the Katrina-like storm that threatens to obliterate her world – with the pugnacious instincts of a born survivor. She gets a voice-over, which applies the deliberately inarticulate lyricism of Terrence Malick to the Toni Morrison-like mantras recurring inside her head, whipping up fresh poetry from this cocktail of influences.
Writes Roger Ebert:
In the opening moments of "Beasts of the Southern Wild," I had no idea when or where we were. Only gradually did I understand that the Bathtub is offshore from New Orleans, isolated by levees, existing self-contained on its own terms. The distant profiles of drilling rigs and oil refineries might as well be mysterious prehistoric artifacts.
A fearsome storm is said to be on the way, but existence here is already post-apocalyptic, with the people cobbling together discarded items of civilization like the truck bed and oil drums that have been made into a boat. Their ramshackle houses perch uneasily on bits of high ground, and some are rebuilding them into arks that they hope will float through the flood.
Hushpuppy is on intimate terms with the natural world, with the pigs she feeds and the fish she captures with her bare hands; sometimes she believes animals speak to her in codes.
This is only an illustration of the way all small children think, translating the mysteries of an unfolding world into their own terms. But Hushpuppy lives in desolation, and her inner resources are miraculous. She is so focused, so sure, so defiant and brave, that she is like a new generation put forward in desperate times by the human race. She is played by a force of nature named Quvenzhané Wallis, who was 5 years old when the movie was cast, 7 when it was finished, and like many of the cast members had never acted before. She is so uniquely and particularly herself that I wonder if the movie would have been possible without her.
"Beasts" is a first feature by Benh Zeitlin, based on a screenplay and stage play by his collaborator, Lucy Alibar. They found post-Katrina locations in the ravaged bayous of Louisiana, and constructed on a small budget their convincing and meticulously detailed settlement. Everyone in the Bathtub knows one another, and in a sense, they're all the same age — which is Now. It is a daily struggle, helped for some by alcohol, and they recite their communal myths of liberated ice age creatures that will come foraging for them as the glaciers melt.