Monday, June 25, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

I know it's the middle of the summer and all we care about right now is Batman and Spider-Man, but there's a much smaller fantastical hero's quest that deserves your attention too: Beasts of the Southern Wild. I can't stress enough what a good film it is, but I'm going to try.

The first of hopefully many films directed by Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild is the story of Hushpuppy, a six year old girl who lives with her father, Wink, in The Bathtub, a tiny community on an island on the Mississippi Delta. She spends much of her time on her own, in her own separate house, imagining her mother and such, as her father, a stern and distant man, does his best to keep her alive and fed. Her world then comes crashing down when she learns that her father is slowly dying from a medical condition, and then the rains come and flood the entire island. She, along with her father and several other citizens who refuse to leave their homes, begin a life afloat on the water.

When I say Hushpuppy's life comes crashing down, I mean quite literally. The movie is told completely from her perspective, and every event to a six year old feels interconnected, epic, and downright cataclysmic. When she learns of her father's illness, she perceives the balance of nature being tilted, the icecaps melting, a herd of prehistoric beasts called Aurochs awakening and trampling their way to her. The rains over The Bathtub only confirm her apocalyptic thoughts. Things are going to change.

The cinematography and production design is rich, detailed, and evocative. Zeitlin and crew puts you directly into Hushpuppy's world. The camera often stays low to the ground so you experience things with her.

The biggest treats in Beasts of the Southern Wild are the two lead performances. Zeitlin used locals for his cast, all real people, non professionals. The little girl who played Hushpuppy, Quvenzhané Wallis, is astonishing. The only other time I've ever seen a kid this young give such a convincing performance was in Tarsem's The Fall, and that little girl was basically tricked into acting. I see a lot of critics like Ebert and stuff referring to Quvenzhané Wallis as a "force of nature", which is about as accurate as you can get.

Dwight Henry, the man who played her father, Wink, is just as good. Wink does what he can to protect his daughter and prepare her for life without him, essentially pushing Hushpuppy away, and being harsh to her out of love. He, Wallis, and Zeitlin did a Q&A after the screening we attended, and when it came out that Henry had never acted before, that he in fact, owns a bakery, there was a collective gasp from the entire audience. Watching the movie before I heard that, I took him for a pro.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is moving and lyrical, simultaneously epic and internal, with two of the best performances you'll see this year. I wouldn't be surprised at all if it gets swamped with awards and nominations when the year's movies are tallied up in December. It's already one of the big Sundance and Cannes festival winners. It's opening in limited release this upcoming weekend (June 29), and expanding to other cities over the coming weeks. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a must see movie, so keep an eye out for it!

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