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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 6.67%
Average: 13.33%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap: 0%

2 reviews, 3 user ratings

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Beasts of the Southern Wild
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by Peter Sobczynski

"To Live And Die In LA."
5 stars

Between foul-mouthed teddy bears, swooping superheroes and the usual array of explosions, car chases and alien invaders, this summer has already seen more than its share of large-scale spectacles but in terms of presenting anything truly spectacular--something that will stick in the mind long after the end credits have rolled and the last popcorn kernels have been consumed--this summer has, with the exception of the ambitious "Prometheus," has largely been a bummer. Zillions of dollars in technological achievements have been spent in attempting to dazzle viewers with superficial eye candy but to judge by the majority of disappointing retreads, sequels and knockoffs, very little has been invested into grabbing them with sights and stories that are fascinating to behold because they have never before experienced on the big screen. There are many reasons to cherish "Beasts of the Southern Wild," the debut feature from director Benh Zeitlin that has become a sensation in indie film circles since it debuted earlier this year at the Sundance film festival, but for me, the greatest pleasure to be derived from it is the fact that I cannot recall another movie that is even remotely like it. Shot on a brief schedule with a briefer budget, this is one of the most audacious cinematic experiences to come along in recent memory--perhaps only the great Werner Herzog would have even attempted something along these lines and I am not so sure that even he could have managed to hit the same heights that it nails so beautifully and seemingly without effort.

The film is set in The Bathtub, a remote and bombed-out Louisiana floodplain that is the home to a small group of characters who have chosen to stay in their Katrina-ravaged community by living off the land in jerry-rigged shelters and by a code based equally on notions of survival at all costs and a deep-seated distrust of anything beyond their immediate sphere of existence. Our guide to this world is Hushpuppy (newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis), a spunky and surprisingly resourceful six-year-old girl who lives in The Bathtub with her alcoholic father, Wink (Dwight Henry). Hushpuppy has already experienced more in her short life than anyone should have to experience but faces everything from the loss of her mother to the occasional extended disappearances of Wink with the kind of indomitable spirit that belies the fact that she is still young enough to believe that if she accidentally sets a fire in her makeshift kitchen while cooking, a cardboard box with provide adequate protection. Nevertheless, she loves her father and misses her mother, whom she has been told swam out to sea years earlier and never returned; as a result, we sometimes see her standing along the water's edge screaming for her lost parent in a manner that is equal parts anger, anguish and cockeyed optimism that she may yet return one day.

Things begin to change for Hushpuppy with the near-simultaneous arrivals of her father, who comes back after an unexplained absence carrying a secret that he flat-out refuses to reveal to his daughter or anyone, and a giant storm that threatens to flood The Bathtub for good. Many of the residents decide to finally flee the area but Hushpuppy and Wink are among those who stick behind. The storm hits and, as expected, the area is pretty much devastated as what little the community had to begin with is largely washed away in an instant. Wink and some of the remaining residents hit upon a plan to save what remains of the area but the only trouble is that by doing so, they could potentially start a chain of events could bring an end to their way of life anyway. Although Hushpuppy does not entirely grasp what is going on, either with The Bathtub or with her father, she knows enough to realize that something apocalyptic is on the horizon, a notion that she associates with the possible return of prehistoric creatures known as "aurochs" that were set free from the polar ice caps during the storm and which are now headed right for her home, and she realizes that she will eventually have to confront all of these troubles as only she can and come to terms with the chaos that threatens to overwhelm her.

As you have probably figured out by now, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is not your typical film by a long shot. The film is adapted, presumably loosely, from the play "Juicy and Delicious" by Lucy Alibar, who co-wrote the screenplay with Zeitlin, and it is pretty much a wonder for what it is able to accomplish throughout with incredible ease and grace. This is a film that is less interested into pummeling viewers into submission as it is in gradually placing them on the same wavelength as its characters so things that might seem utterly outrageous or ridiculous in a conventional film come across as perfectly acceptable and understandable instead. Towards the beginning of the film, for example, we hear a character remark that the Bathtub is "the prettiest place on Earth" and after just a brief glimpse of the area, most viewers will take that line as a bit of ironic humor but as things progress, the film manages to not only uncover the beauty that can emerge from chaos but actually paints a convincing case for why some would choose to stay there as opposed to the alien-seeming outside world that you and I see every day. What is especially impressive about the screenplay is that it tells its story completely through the perspective of a six-year-old girl--where things are still pretty much black and white and the line between imagination and reality is fuzzy at best--without ever succumbing to overt cuteness. This unique take also extends to the film's visual approach in the way that it effortlessly blends documentary-like techniques with the kind of low-key magical realism in which inanimate objects talk and prehistoric creatures rise without ever seeming wildly out of place. This may be Zeitlin's first feature but you wouldn't know that by watching it--this is the work of a born filmmaker.

However, the most extraordinary aspect of "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is the knockout performance by Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy, easily one the most fascinating characters to appear on screen this year regardless of age. When it comes to performances by exceptionally young children, there is a tendency to go easy on them as long as they remember their lines and refrain from coming across as too cutesy for their own good. Here, that is not the case because Wallis takes Hushpuppy and invests her with an intelligence and determination that is rarely seen in most adult characters seen these days. Whether she is facing down ancient creatures or coming to terms with the harsh realities of her existence, she is never less than mesmerizing--so much so, in fact that you are always left with the sense that you are watching a real person and not just somebody playing a part. This is not to suggest that she is merely playing herself because I have met Wallis and while she and Hushpuppy certainly have some things in common, there are more than enough differences to plainly illustrate just how much work she did despite her young age. I don't know if acting is something that she plans on pursuing as she grows up or whether this will just be a one-time thing but I can assure you of one thing--if she doesn't turn up on the final list of Oscar nominees for Best Actress next year, that organization will have more to answer for than usual.

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" is a true original and like most true originals, it may prove to be too much for some viewers, who may fail to recognize its childlike point-of-view and simply dismiss it as pretentious claptrap in much the same way that they did last year with Terrence Malick's equally visionary "Tree of Life." At the same time, the extravagant praise that it has received in some quarters may wind up working against it with some people--already, there have been a few skirmishes between critics who have raved about it and critics who are wondering what the fuss is all about. I am always one to question things when a little film comes out of nowhere to such overwhelming acclaim, especially when much of that acclaim initially came from its first screenings at Sundance, a locale where most observers these days are more interested in hitching their wagons to the Next Big Thing than in actually watching and properly regarding the films in question. However, this is a film that deserves all of the praise it has so far received and then some and when all is said and done, this is going to go down as one of the key cultural--not just cinematic--events of the year.

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originally posted: 07/06/12 06:55:12
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2012 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Festival de Cannes For more in the 2012 Festival de Cannes series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Nantucket Film Festival For more in the 2012 Nantucket Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2012 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival For more in the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

6/18/13 Annie G Yes the acting is very good, but the rest of the film is lacking. 3 stars
8/29/12 damalc original, visually stunning, but ultimately empty 3 stars
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  27-Jun-2012 (PG-13)
  DVD: 04-Dec-2012


  DVD: 04-Dec-2012

Directed by
  Benh Zeitlin

Written by
  Benh Zeitlin
  Lucy Alibar

  Quvenzhané Wallis
  Dwight Henry

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