BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
(directed by Benh Zeitlin, 2013)
****+ (out of 5)
> I see no reason to be coy about it. I’ve seen just over five thousand films. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD is a sumptuous feast that ranks among the very best of the lot.
. First time Oscar nominated New York filmmaker Benh Zeitlin returned to the Louisiana delta his parents brought him to when he was 13, to make movies in an environment where the creative impulse was an integral part of local culture. Damn good thing he did, if these are the kinds of movies he’s going to make! To call BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD a breath of fresh air is like calling Hurricane Katrina a little gust of wind. Adapted from the story by Doris Betts and totally free of sophisticated cultural imperatives like irony, this indie miracle goes for the jugular: raw human experience. Casting a light on a vanishing American sub-culture, this wonderful film had me enthralled in the first few minutes, before the opening credits- when we are treated to a spectacularly life-affirming community celebration, that was so giddy as to become intoxicating. Earthy residents of “The Bathtub” at the furthest tip of the quickly-eroding delta, are an all but forgotten community, living on the wrong side of the levy, where they are at the mercy of fickle nature. This indigenous culture goes back centuries and is deeply rooted to the environment, the bounty of the sea and tidelands. The political choice of where to draw the line against nature, made them an outlaw culture, constantly hounded by officials intent on evicting them from their own ancestral lands “for their own good”- and when a big storm hits, you get their point in spades! The storm is a horrifying wake up call, and the threat of global climate destabilization and the inherent sea-level rise it will bring, hangs ever on the moment.
. Six year old “Hushpuppy” lives with- or along side her troubled father, each in their own trailer. The child, played without a trace of affectation by Quvenzhane Wallis (the youngest Best Actress Oscar nominee in history!) is completely at one with nature. Birds are her playthings, the delta her playground. The voice of the film, she narrates the story in the heartbreakingly direct prose of a child, artless, guileless, free of shame or guilt. She clings to the story her papa told her to explain her mother’s absence, and talks aloud to her, in vulnerable moments when she needs an invisible mother. One troubling day, her papa mysteriously vanishes, and she frets, without sentimentality, that she may need to eat her pets if he doesn’t return soon. But when he does return, he is sullen and uncommunicative, rambling in a hospital gown that reveals the cause of his absence. (“Daddy- why you wearin’ a dress an’ a bracelet?”) When he brushes her away brusquely, Hushpuppy acts-out with a thoughtless act of defiance that threatens her own life. The big questions, looming in every frame of this brilliant film: Will nature take the Bathtub and swallow her hearty denizens whole? And what becomes of young Hushpuppy if nature decides to take her papa as well?
. I’ve heard this film described as a downer, but I couldn’t agree less. True, it doest cast an unblinking eye on a tough reality, but the sequence that sticks with me the most, will always stay with me the rest of my movie-watching days- is that wild, joyous party: the communal joy of an indigenous and almost Pagan community celebrating, with soulful abandon, the blessings of a life lived in nature. I was brought to tears by the unforgettable image of precious heroine Hushpuppy, running full-force, with gleeful abandon, waving sparklers in an unbridled ecstasy of childhood bliss! All, perfectly accentuated by the most exquisitely evocative score I’ve heard in ages. (Since Howard Shore’s LORD OF THE RINGS score actually.)
. It’s hard to find something negative to say about this unexpected gem- deservedly nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The enjoyment of a film really depends on what you want from films. I like to be swept away into fully realized and plausible worlds that fill me with the awe for life and wonderment in nature, that the revelers at this delirious Bathtub party felt. I want to fall in love with the actors, be dazzled by pure, genuine emotion. Check, check and check. The subplot about an act of defiance (that the government would no doubt classify as terrorism) that young Hush Puppy is inadvertently drawn into, seemed a bit under-developed, as we didn’t see any consequences for this courageous act of defiance. But it’s an exciting and satisfying sequence nonetheless, and important to frame the larger issue. How far would you go if you saw your entire way of life about to face complete annihilation?
>If you get a chance to see BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, please don’t pass on it. Well, not if you love… life!
© Kevin Paul Keelan and lastcre8iveiconoclast, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kevin Paul Keelan and lastcre8iveiconoclast with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.