Tuesday, July 3, 2012


"Beasts of the Southern Wild" provides a mythic and uncompromising world to get lost in. It's deeply rooted in post-Katrina imagery taking place in a tiny dirt-poor but lively community aptly called the Bathtub. It's a tiny spot of marshland south of the levee in New Orleans easily prone to mass flooding. The dwellers here live an eclectic if not dangerous life in improvised shacks that second as boats if the waters rise. And rise they will as a catastrophic storm heads their way and threatens their entire existence. Meanwhile, prehistoric aurochs -- the beasts referred to in the title -- have thawed from melted ice caps and are summoned by the cataclysm. Arriving from nowhere and receiving a Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance, this debut feature from Benh Zeitlin is an invigorating rush of magical realism.

The story centers on Hushpuppy played with amazing charisma and vigor from tiny little actress Quvenzhane Wallis who was just six years old during shooting. Her performance as the downtrodden but undeniably strong Hushpuppy ranks among the best in female protagonists we've seen on screen this year right alongside Katniss Everdeen and Princess Merida. She is nearly orphaned with her hard-drinking father, Wink (Dwight Henry), whose parenting style could be considered quite abusive and neglectful if viewed in a different light. But here, Wink is only teaching her daughter how to survive in a harsh environment, one he plans on never fleeing even when their entire home goes underwater.

This community is staunchly dedicated to their homes. Even when the hurricane comes crashing in and a mandatory evacuation brings them north of the levee to safety and solitude, they refuse. In such, they're refusing consumerism and the meddlesome good intentions of the government. Taking pride in a multicultural self-sustaining microcosm, they live on their own island where there is no threat of modernity.

Benh Zeitlin worked on the script with Lucy Alibar who penned the play, "Jucy and Delicious," upon which the movie is based. It's a work of homemade collaboration (the actors were all local), and as an established work of art and a miniature miracle, the film is getting heaps of critical praise and awards. It's a challenging movie but one that is ultimately rewarding in its thrilling exploration, sensory joy and allegorical prowess.

"Beasts" shares a kinship with Malick's "The Tree of Life" in that it's a small story that reaches out to themes much greater than itself. This is much like Hushpuppy who looks beyond her own immediate surroundings into the makings of the universe and what it means to take control of one's own life against the most profound adversities. Zeitlin embeds the script in the distinct idiosyncrasies of the region, the people and a colorful lifestyle and in observation achieves a level of high originality and stunning scope. For my money, "Beasts" is a better and more accessible movie than Malick's, one that isn't afraid to pack an unabashed emotional wallop.  It's also the very best film so far this year.

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