Friday, July 13, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

When I told my mom I had seen Beasts of the Southern Wild, she told me that she had read many reviews that praised it, but no reviews that really said what it was about. And I had the same problem trying to explain the movie, a narrative film with forays into surrealism and metaphor, to her. What is it about? A girl. A parent and child. A hurricane. A community. A planet. It's difficult to expand on, perhaps because one of the film's greatest strengths is in director Benh Zeitlin's commitment to letting the film just be.

It's the dreamlike story of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhan√© Wallis), a six-year-old girl living with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) in the Bathtub, a quickly disappearing island on the other side of Louisiana's levees. They live in patched together trailers filled with debris and mementos. Hushpuppy is largely left to her own devices, conversing with a mother long gone and listening to the heartbeats of her chickens, pigs, and dogs. Their neighbors' situations are mostly the same: a collection of people who have separated from the rest of society and make do. They might joke about the rising water taking away their home, but they refuse to believe it will actually happen. When the "big one," a hurricane that might or might not be Katrina, does finally strike, the surviving parties of those who didn't evacuate must band together closer than ever. But with rescue choppers hovering, how long can they stay in their beloved, beautiful wilderness? 

Wallis as Hushpuppy and Henry as Wink.

But despite being a social services nightmare - what with townsfolk ignoring mandatory evacuations and kids not going to accredited schools and staying with whatever kindly drunken neighbors take them in - it's easy to see why the residents are so fiercely committed to remaining on their island. The Bathtub way of life, with its joyous celebrations, close community, wide-open naturalness, and feeling of freedom, is far more appealing than the cramped, florescent-lighted shelters and overwhelmed community hospitals they would likely be living in otherwise. 

The girls of Bathtub journey to the changing shoreline.

The cast is mostly composed of first-time actors, Louisiana locals. Dwight Henry is a baker, but with the desperation and determination he brings to Wink, you'd never know this was his first acting role. And Quvenzhan√© Wallis is quite the first-grade-aged artist. Her performance thankfully lacks any of the annoying, cloying mugging common in child actors. Instead, she is tough, wide-eyed, and intuitive, and very much a six-year-old. When Hushpuppy doubts her father's plans for staying, you can see it in her eyes and body language without Wallis overacting. Her strength makes her moments of vulnerability all the more deeply felt.

Beasts of the Southern Wild opened last weekend in a limited release, but it seems to be in more theaters (at least here in the SF Bay Area) this weekend. I definitely recommend checking if it's near you. 

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