[Beasts of the Southern Wild
Written & Directed by Benh Zeitlin
Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry
MPAA: PG-13 - For Thematic Material Including Child Imperilment, Some Disturbing Images, Language, and Brief Sensuality]
A lot of people think that all critics are inherently cynical, which I could not disagree with more. Just because a movie critic's job is to analyze something that someone else sees only as mere entertainment, doesn't mean he's a cynical ass who's just criticizing something because he/she doesn't know the meaning of fun. That being said, I think there's a lot more cynicism in critics now than there have been in a while. Well, not with real critics per se (even though there are plenty of names I could name). There's been this whole thing going on about how "all movies today suck" even though there are usually 10 movies I can name for any given year that I would consider must-sees.
Though it's true that there's a ton of things wrong with the movie-making process in modern Hollywood right now, I still think that every year there are at least two movies (mainstream or otherwise) that fit into the phrase "unlike anything else I've ever seen". Last year, there were three movies that I would put into that category (The Tree of Life, Drive, the insanely underrated Hanna) and this year's big "You haven't seen anything quite like this" movie is Beasts of the Southern Wild. Beasts is not only this year's most audacious film, it's one of the most assured directorial debuts I've ever seen and it's a powerfully devastating experience that will leave you in emotional stitches. In short, is it too early to call Beasts of the Southern Wild the best movie of 2012 so far? I don't care, because I don't think another movie will be able to top it!
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a fable filled with equal parts realism and fantasy. It follows a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her experiences in a shanty town somewhere off the coast of New Orleans called The Bathtub. The Bathtub is a community almost completely cut off from the rest of the world by a levee that extends across the southern coast of America. Despite not having the same technological resources we do, the people of the Bathtub are anything but miserable. Well aware that they're one storm away from destruction, the citizens of the Bathtub live every day like it's their last, with celebrations all around and a defiant spirit that looks at all of their hardships in the eye and says "We're gonna keep on living, and there's not a damn thing you can do to stop us!"
That all changes, however, when a huge storm unlike any other ends up flooding the whole town. The storm is so strong and apocalyptic, it causes prehistoric creatures called Aurochs to thaw from the ice of the southern wild and head toward the Bathtub, further worsening the whole situation. Hushpuppy and her father Wink (Dwight Henry) survive the strong waters, but not everyone else is as lucky. Realizing that not everyone has survived, Hushpuppy embarks on a quest to save her beloved home and discover the whereabouts of her long-lost mother.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is an independently made picture, but you wouldn't know that if you saw it and I didn't tell you. Much like the resilient citizens of the Bathtub, debut writer-director Benh Zeitlin looks at the low budget and sees only opportunities to go in different directions rather than limitations. He looks at that low budget and goes "I'm gonna make this movie as big as I want, and there's not a damn thing you can do to stop me!" Here is a film that strives for ambition even amongst its low budget, and somehow miraculously achieves it. People who complain that independent movies suffer because they're limited to telling small stories will get a kick out of how expansive Beasts ends up becoming. It feels more like a sprawling, epic hero's tale than an independent feature.
I talked a bit in my Moonrise Kingdom review about how Wes Anderson was able to create his own little world with its own rules that feels very alive within his film's framework. Beasts of the Southern Wild takes the daunting task of creating an entire world out of seemingly nothing, one-ups it, then continues to multiply it as it goes on. A whole world is created with so little that it mesmerizes you from the start. That's because that spirit that I mentioned earlier is pervasive throughout the whole picture. And it becomes all the more devastating when that world is destroyed near the beginning of the film.
Before you go to the comments board ready to snarkily comment "A flood in New Orleans? That sounds awfully familiar, doesn't it?" I'm just gonna address it now. The film definitely evokes a lot of the traumas of Hurricane Katrina. I don't know whether to call it subtle or not, because while it's definitely clear what the filmmakers are trying to do, they never for a single second ever mention the words "Katrina" or even "Hurricane" throughout the whole film. It's simply the story of how our young protagonist Hushpuppy comes to process the tragedy and disaster around her. It felt like a good version of what Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was trying to do with 9/11. Whereas that film had moments of falseness and obvious manipulation (There's a scene in it where the young boy collapses in exactly the same way the Twin Towers do), Beasts has nuance and grace that accentuate the tragedy more than any sort of tricks of manipulation can do.
This is especially because the whole story is told entirely from Hushpuppy's point of view. We see everything through her eyes, and we are with her in every step of the way. It becomes so subjective in fact, that what may seem like a drama based on real events starts to take on fantasy elements. I was reminded of Guillermo Del Toro's masterpiece Pan's Labyrinth, which also took a real tragedy (The Spanish Civil War) and used the perspctive of a young, female protagonist to juxtapose the grim reality with her dark fantasies as she processes the events that unfold in front of her. In Beasts, we're just as unsure of whether these fantasy elements are actually there or a part of Hushpuppy's wild imagination, but whereas Pan's Labyrinth used it to devastating effect to enhance the tragedy, Beasts uses it in a beautifully poignant way to further show that Bathtub spirit.
However, the main reason why we're able to completely crawl into the perspective of this young character so immersively is because Quevenzhané Wallis gives a power-house performance that is honestly one of the fiercest child-performances I've ever seen. Remember that other thing I mentioned in my Moonrise Kingdom review when I talked about how much I enjoyed the child actors in that movie for being so refreshingly deadpan? Well, what makes Wallis so engrossing here is that she's more than just deadpan: She's entirely natural. There was never a single moment where I thought that she was "performing". It's one of the most authentic child performances I've seen in a long time, and it reminded me ever so much of Linda Manz in Days of Heaven (Especially in the gorgeously lyrical narration). Also, she's fierce. Wallis actually feels like a force of nature herself. Her Hushpuppy is brave, unique, but still vulnerable enough to feel real and further the stakes. In layman's terms: She actually acts like a real child with hubris that's as big as her stature is small, and Wallis plays her tremendously.
The whole movie stirred a lot of emotions within me, and while you can definitely attribute that to the whole spirit of the film, the assured direction, Wallis's fantastic performance, and the timely Katrina allusions, one of the biggest factors in how emotional the film is is the music. This may sound weird, but the soundtrack feels like a character of its own. With a score co-composed by the writer and director Benh Zeitlin, believe it or not, the opening scene of the film shows one of the Bathtub's many holidays, treating us with a gorgeous explosion of joy, drinking, feasting, and lots of pyrotechnics. And during this scene, an incredible theme with hints of both traditionanl orchestra and bluegrass violins slowly rises and rises in tempo, volume, and energy until it reaches a peak. The soundtrack is just as important in capturing the personality and spirit of the Bathtub as the aesthetic and performances, and it entraps the viewer in its strange spell even further.
I have only one complaint with this film and it isn't even much of a legitimate complaint: I wanted to see more of the Bathtub before it was destroyed. I totally got why they shifted to the disaster (a.k.a. the driving force of the narrative) relatively early on, but the scenes in which the whole town simply celebrates being able to live another day were so magnificently done and had such astounding life to them that I wanted more of it. It really speaks to the quality of a film where you realize you want to spend more time immersed in its unique world, and the fact that Zeitlin and company were able to do it with such little resources is an astounding feat.
The movie starts opening in select theaters at the 27th of June, but will hopefully expand to more and more cities via positive word of mouth and (hopefully) awards buzz. I can't stress this enough, though: No matter what city, state, country, continent, whatever you're in, you should seek out Beasts of the Southern Wild as soon as possible. I hate to potentially oversell something to the point of sheer hyperbole, but I loved this film so much and it had such a powerful effect on me that I can't help but recommend it to absolutely everyone. It's ambitious, it's beautiful, it's unlike anything else I've ever seen, and it made me and an entire theater of adults weep like babies. Hell, I already can't wait to see it a second time. Seek. This. Movie. Out.
Final Verdict: Beasts of the Southern Wild is a revelatory movie, and reminds one of the possibilities of the medium. On such a low budget, it has such an epic, sprawling scope while still managing to tell an intimate tale of survival and community. The performances are excellent, the look is gorgeous, the music is beyond incredible, and it gives a deservingly beautiful ode to the enduring spirit of the Bayou. Also, the final 20 minutes of the film will break you down to a weeping mess of tissues. I will proudly vouch that guarantee.
That is all. If you liked this review and would like to read more, you can do so by reading more from this blog and following me on the Twitter-machine @CGRunyon to hear more of my general ramblings on film, video games, and other such things. By following me, you not only get an endless stream of updates on what's going on with my articles, you get to stroke my massive ego in the process. Do at your own risk.
See ya next time. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to practice my catfish-whacking abilities. Bye!