Wednesday, September 26, 2012

In Theaters: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild poster

It's notable that the two best films this year so far are about children interpreting the world through their own fantasies. Beasts of the Southern Wild isn't cut from quite the same cloth as Moonrise Kingdom but it invites a similar level of immersion; in order for it to work at all you have to accept its reality as true. For this reason it's hard to actually judge the film; it plays by its own set of narrative rules and asks the viewer to take it or leave it. But it is absolutely what it sets out to be, and offers a compelling vision of a society on the fringe of what most of us are familiar with.

Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is a little girl who lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) in "The Bathtub", a ramshackle island community outside of the flood levees which protect New Orleans. The people fish, raise animals, drink, and follow their own mythology which seems to revolve around the fact that they're in an area which floods a lot. Hushpuppy's daddy has gotten sick, and is sometimes violent, and she confronts him shortly before a terrible storm which threatens to render the area around the Bathtub uninhabitable. She believes that her anger with her father somehow caused the catastrophe, and also that it's tied to the melting of ice caps and the release of ancient boar-like monsters called aurochs. But there are more immediate troubles, like the land-based authorities trying to forcibly evacuate the community and separate Hushpuppy from her father and her home.

The film is narrated by Hushpuppy in a matter of fact style and presented relentlessly from her point of view, which means she accepts the Bathtub community as how life is, and we're asked to accept it as well. It can be a challenge- life in the Bathtub is gritty and strange, and it's not really clear that this is a good environment for a girl to grow up in. Of course, it's to the film's credit that the portrayal of this culture isn't overly sentimental; we see the flaws and the ugliness, even if Hushpuppy doesn't.

The major flaw is her father, who is basically a mess. He provides for her in his way, but is quick to anger and also prone to disappear. He's a violent man who pushes Hushpuppy to be stronger but often neglects her. There's a reason for his absences and his behavior, and the film doesn't ask us to see it as an ideal situation; rather, there's a connection between Wink and the Bathtub as a whole, both ailing and possibly not long for this world.

The rational viewer, at times, must question some of what's being presented. The area around the Bathtub is becoming uninhabitable due to the salty floodwaters which cover it; it might actually be a good idea for the people to be evacuated. But that's not really the major conflict of the story, or at least not the most important part of it. Hushpuppy weaves the issues of her father and the community into a larger story of self discovery, a hero's journey which will eventually have her confront the dark forces she thinks she's responsible for unleashing.

The film is rambling, episodic, and rich; it's hard to see where it's going at times, and the mix of naturalistic filming and magical realism can sometimes be off-putting. But we're carried along by Hushpuppy herself, a charming narrator and a bold presence on screen. She makes it impossible to fully turn away from the ugly conflicts, because she's learning how to face them in her own way. The film ends on an ambiguous note, uncertain about the future of the Bathtub and the people who lived there, but it's clear that many transformations have taken place, inside and out.

Based on the stage play "Juicy and Delicious" by Lucy Alibar
Screenplay by Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin
Directed by Benh Zeitlin

Grade: A

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