MOVIE REWIND: “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (2012)

File:Beats-of-the-southern-wild-movie-poster.jpgBecause there is a seemingly infinite amount of movies you could watch, allow us to introduce MOVIE REWIND here at Reel Reactions, a place where my fellow writers and I can discuss movies that we never got the chance to and review films that demand to be seen if you haven’t already, be them recent hits, hidden gems, or acclaimed classics. With the 2013 Sundance Film Festival currently underway and the awards season reaching its climax with the forthcoming Academy Awards, it could not be a better time to sit down and watch Beasts of the Southern Wild, last year’s Sundance winner and one of the best films of 2012. Nominated for 4 Oscars, including Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Picture, Beasts is a lyrical masterpiece, a small fable with big themes and even bigger emotions. If you missed this independent darling when it was released in May of 2012, it’s now in theaters once again thanks to its Oscar momentum and it’s also on DVD, Blu-Ray, and On Demand, so let’s take a movie rewind:

In a summer season stuffed with superhero blockbusters and high-octane reboots, it’s always a complete joy when a small little film comes along with a bigger heart than any of the box office titans combined. Beasts of the Southern Wild, the debut feature from director Benh Zeitlin, is that type of film. Beasts is pure cinematic poetry, a film bursting with poignancy and passion and one with a performance by Quvenzhané Wallis that’s so enchanting, you’ll do a jaw-dropping double take when you realize she was only 6-years-old at the time of filming.

Set in a deep southern bayou community known as The Bathtub, Beasts tells the story of Hushpuppy (Wallis) and her father, the forceful and hotheaded Wink (Dwight Henry). Strong-willed and curious, Hushpuppy spends her days learning at school and making peace with nature. In class, her teacher preaches of the apocalypse, an event that will see the melting of the ice caps and the unleashing of prehistoric beasts called Aurochs. In the natural world, Hushpuppy comes to believe that everything is harmonious (with one beating heart) and that if one things falls out of place the rest will follow. This very thought begins Hushpuppy’s riveting journey, for when her father begins to grow ill, the rest of Hushpuppy’s world begins to unravel as well, signified by an impending storm and the fantastical forthcoming of the Aurochs.

Like The Tree of Life before it, the narrative story of Beasts is the least exciting aspect of the film. Instead, the Oscar-nominated Zeitlin has created a movie of such momentous pulse and mood that the character growth of Hushpuppy becomes more important than the physical events taking place. And damn, how extraordinary Hushpuppy’s emotional journey is! From her complicated relationship with Wink to her eye opening experiences with the rest of The Bathtub, Hushpuppy’s arc is so relatable that it’s beyond poignant to watch her struggle with individual strife and find peace through communal healing.

Perhaps most impressive of all is the fact that the film is boiling over with genuinely fresh talent. In his debut feature, Zeitlin does wonders with the camera, creating a world to get lost in full of raw intensity and wondrous imagination. Like the mind of Hushpuppy herself, Zeitlin’s direction is loose and ever wandering, and while it may polarize some, the lack-of-narrative approach to the story is perfect for dissecting the curious mind of Hushpuppy. Zeitlin’s shaky camera also pulls you into The Bathtub, making the characters and situations all the more relatable despite the fable-like presence of the Aurochs. By keeping the camera mostly on Hushpuppy, we see the world through her eyes (big, confusing, and beautiful) and come to understand things as she does. Many people were in an uproar when Zeitlin’s name was announced as a Best Director nominee over Argo’s Ben Affleck, but there’s no doubt Zeitlin is the stronger and more deserving of the two; like a great poem or The Scarlet Letter, Zeitlin fills his frames with lyrical beauty and inspired metaphors and it’s honestly something I’ve never quite seen done before on film. Zeitlin’s use of sound, lighting, and music are also crucial (he co-composed the score and it’s my favorite of the year so far) One scene, where Hushpuppy goes searching for her mother, is a quiet punch to the heart – the combination of hazy lights, a spinning camera, and jazz music creates some kind of dream world that solidifies Zeitlin as a force to watch.

The performances from complete unknowns also make their mark. As Wink, Dwight Henry gives his stalwart father a shocking emotional depth and Wallis just steals the show. For 6 years old, Wallis is more than a tour-de-force, she’s a flat out revelation. From her long, wandering looks to her passion filled eyes, Wallis’ cute, pudgy face becomes a canvass of ever changing emotions – fear, wonder, sorrow, joy, etc. Though they impress individually, it’s really when Wink and Wallis share the screen that the movie flat out stuns; be it their heated arguments or moments of life altering understanding, these two newcomers give us a father-daughter relationship worth lauding (an argument that ends with Hushpuppy proclaiming, “I’m the man!” is an acting master-class and one of the best of the movie). The name Quvenzhané Wallis may be hard to pronounce but remember it (it sounds like kwuh-ven-juh-nay, if that helps) – I think you’ll be hearing it a lot more!

Beyond Wallis’ performance, the film also impresses with its rather beautiful depiction of community. Given the location of the film and the ferocious, flood-inducing storm, comparisons to Hurricane Katrina are as obvious as they are haunting, but like any great piece of art, the film made me reconsider the horrors of that fatal event. I remember watching the events of Katrina on the news and feeling completely devastated and sorry for the people who had lost everything, but oh how this film made me think otherwise. When life ends, these characters don’t cry, they celebrate. They don’t commemorate a life lost through pity, they celebrate death through living and living with joy and excitement. When the storm kills nearly everything in The Bathtub, these people don’t abandon their homes, they stay put with bravery and determination, come together effortlessly, and cherish life the only way they know how – through good food, songs, chants, fireworks, and an overall sense of community and being. This emotional truth – to celebrate rather than pity – has been done to death in countless films and books, but in Beasts it’s so genuine that it puts a smile on my face just thinking about it.

And yet, I’d be lying if I said the film was absolute perfection. While the harsh reality of Katrina and the incredible Quvenzhané Wallis keeps things grounded, the impending arrival of the Aurochs always elevates things to a fable-like level. It’s not that the Aurochs are bad per say (their presence is justified since they act as a striking metaphor to the beast inside Hushpuppy), it’s just that their addition tries to make fantasy out of a reality that is already imaginative and enchanting to begin with. In a film of such raw and relatable issues, the Aurochs struck me as childish fluff – perfectly suitable but not necessarily vital. However, in a film of such joy, this is hardly a big complaint.

After winning big at both last year’s Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals and scoring 4 major Oscar nominations, it’ll be easy to overhype yourself on what is ultimately a small and simple film with a big beating heart. Though it might not be as big in scope as the mighty Aurochs, Beasts of the Southern Wild is understated storytelling at its finest – this is a movie that’s alive and breathing, filled with imagination both real and fantastical, and home to an Oscar-caliber performance from a 6 year old girl with one funky name (Quvenzhané Wallis!) – if that doesn’t get you high off the movies again, I’m not sure what will!

Article by Zack Sharf


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