Tuesday, July 17, 2012


I'm not usually in the habit of posting about films after they've already begun their theatrical run here in town.  But last night I hit a screening of Beasts of the Southern Wild with friends and was so impressed that I'm feeling the need to write as a means of processing it.  To cut to the chase, I loved it; I'm already scurrying to find a small amount of free time (not easy w/ an 8 month old in the house) to go see it again. 

Those of us who regularly return to the comforts of the movie house are a masochistic bunch.  The overwhelming majority of films we experience while sitting in those seats range from mediocre to just plain terrible.  And yet, we find ourselves, time and again, leaning back in the dark and peering up in hopes of experiencing an illuminating vision collectively.  There's a reason for all this hoping against hope.  We return because we're optimistic.  And we're optimistic because we've seen magic hit the screen before and the memory of it, no matter how faint, has implanted a yearning for more, regardless of how many lifeless, clichéd misfires might have passed before our eyes since we last saw that precious spark.

Beast of the Southern Wild is made of such magic.  It's a wild, unruly sort, and while it may not yield a movie grounded in perfection, there's little doubt that the chances taken in order to conjure this cinematic spell will extend one's belief in film just a little further, if one is willing to go where the film takes you.  This is a greatly ambitious first feature from director Benh Zeitlin, filled to the brim with risky transitions between passages that soar to ones based in somber ruminations, painting a deeply textured world that has more in common with the writing of Faulkner than with your average celluloid adventure.

You also might recognize within it the influence of Malick, George Washington, John Sayles (The Secret of Roan Inish is the obvious touchstone, but also his very underrated 1999 picture Limbo), and a general aesthetic of of tone based in absence and loss that's been quietly burbling under the surface of most recent American realist cinema.  All of which doesn't prepare you for the insertion into the mise en scène of aurochs roaming the film's Louisiana Delta setting (their presence bringing to mind the Leonard Smalls character that shadows H.I. in Raising Arizona).  Let me be clear, there's no mimicry at play here, Zeitlin masterfully blends these influences in manner that makes them his own.

Without a doubt, the presence of Quvenzhané Wallis as the six-year old protagonist, Hushpuppy, is what sells even the most far flung of Zeitlin's ideas (and notions of which ideas work and which don't will likely vary greatly depending on who's viewing the film).  It's been a while since I've seen a performance from a child actor capable of exhibiting such range, maybe since Whale Rider (yet another film that Beasts resembles at times).  Dwight Henry's turn as Hushpuppy's father, Wink, anchors Wallis' uninhibited approach whenever he's on screen.  Their onscreen rapport feels lived in, seasoned beyond the younger actor's years.

As for plot, well, I'm not really going to get into that at all.  I purposely went into the film totally blind.  I hadn't even seen the trailer (linked below).  I'd recommend ignoring that link and encountering it without any bloody notion what you're about to see.  Not a spoiler: it's a wonderful surprise.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is playing now at Cinema 21.  More info available here.

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