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Sundance 2012 Review: BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD

 

Though all films are technically "unique," Beasts of the Southern Wild deserves that title perhaps more than most. Directed by Benh Zeitlin and shot with non-trained actors, the film is told through the eyes of a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy in the Louisiana bayou. At times feeling like a documentary because of the real-life locations decimated by Hurricane Katrina, the story revolves around a massive storm tearing through the area and the relationship between Hushpuppy, her father, and the community around them provides the center point for the movie.

Though the film has a central plot, it's not really a traditional story. It's very ethereal, and in periodic narrations - many of which include wise-beyond-her-years sayings that are supposed to resonate like, "When you're small, you've gotta fix what you can" - Hushpuppy reveals that she likes to commune with nature, listening to the life forces of random animals and plant life. There's all kinds of talk about the end of the world, cave drawings, an eccentric boat captain who hoards discarded chicken biscuit wrappers, and giant creatures who were frozen during the ice age who return to life and stalk the characters for the duration of the film. Sound weird? That's not the half of it.

The cinematography seems to mirror the wild lifestyle of the film's characters, shaking and snaking through woods and brambles attempting to keep up with the protagonist. She's a precocious girl, trained by her father in the ways of survival (think of last year's Hanna, but not nearly as intense), and the atmosphere and dialogue contributes to a real sense of place that is unlike any I've ever seen on film. A storm sequence early in the movie has some incredible sound design, transitioning from the crashing thunder and rushing water to a peaceful, quiet dripping as the scene turns to the aftermath.

The locations and devastation hit a bit too close to home sometimes, with Hushpuppy and her father cruising around in a fishing boat made out of a truck bed. There is trash and debris everywhere, and if absolutely nothing else, the film provides a gut-punching reminder of the horror some people in America actually live through. But that's not the point of the movie - the residents of "The Bathtub," the small community in which the film takes place, love it there and don't want to leave, even in the face of the coming storm. A subplot involving a mandatory evacuation brings a bit more of a political slant into the story, and, more importantly, allows Hushpuppy to discover her true identity when it is stripped away from her. (It should be mentioned that the young star, Quvenzhane Wallis, owns the screen for every frame she's on it.)

All that being said, this is definitely not my kind of movie. It's much too heady for my tastes, and while I was swept away with the look of the movie, the story and characters never really connected with me. It's a bold movie, especially for a first time filmmaker, but the minutae was lost on me.

Apparently audiences gave Beasts of the Southern Wild a standing ovation at its premiere here, and buyers are scrambling to pick it up. I have no idea why, though - there's no way this can ever be marketed as a successful commercial film, and it's a story that seems perfectly confined to a festival crowd and playing to audiences seemingly bred to appreciate it.

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