Thursday, July 26, 2012

Review: "Beasts of the Southern Wild"

Beasts of the Southern Wild is the first feature film from Benh Zeitlin. The film won the prestigious Caméra d'Or at Cannes and the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic at the Sundance Film Festival. It is a film chock full of symbolism and allusions, and it owes the entirety of its success to a six year old girl. Quvenzhané Wallis was six years old when the film was shot. She is the complete star of the film, as both actress and narrator. There is already speculation that Wallis can (will) be nominated for an Academy Award, which would tie her for the youngest Oscar nominee ever (with Justin Henry in Kramer vs. Kramer). Wallis, who has never acted before, is so perfectly wonderful in the film. Beasts of the Southern Wild is an allegorical film that draws heavy comparisons with Hurricane Katrina. The film is set in the Southern Delta and was shot in various locations in Louisiana, including New Orleans, which make the comparisons to Hurricane Katrina easier to substantiate. It is crazy to believe that this is Benh Zeitlin's first feature film. His two stars have never appeared in front of a camera before. Dwight Henry worked as a Louisiana baker before appearing in the film. He unleashes such power and anger in the film that is both frightening and thrilling at once. Is it too much to believe that his personal memories of Hurricane Katrina made it easier for him to create a character who is unwilling to believe that the apocalypse is approaching. A slight knock against the film is that it travels too deep into fantasy. There are several scenes featuring aurochs, huge domestic cattle last seen in 1627, and the symbolism is a bit too much for me. It would be fair to say that a lot of Zeitlin's ideas went over my head. Beasts of the Southern Wild is the kind of independent festival favourite that can sustain momentum for the rest of the year as positive word spreads and as it opens in more cities. Quvenzhané Wallis offers such a raw and fiery performance that makes Beasts of the Southern Wild a must-see film for film lovers. The film is beautifully shot and performed with relentless emotion.

Hushpuppy (Wallis) is a six-year-old girl who lives with her father Wink (Henry) in a community in the southern Delta known as the Bathtub. The Bathtub is a close-knit community of people who live off the land and are fiercely loyal to their neighbours and their community. Hushpuppy narrates the film and talks about the future as a place where children will be able to go to school. Wink is very tough on his daughter, often yelling and lashing out at her. He lives in one trailer and she lives in another. He has contracted a mysterious illness and he is too stubborn (and ill-equipped) to seek proper medical advice. Wink is dying and trying to teach Hushpuppy to survive without him. When news of an imminent hurricane comes, Wink watches as some flee the Bathtub, but he is unwilling to go with them. He and Hushpuppy eventually wake up to their world completely flooded. They are able to take their makeshift boat (the bed of a pick-up truck) and discover some fellow residents that failed to heed warnings of the hurricane. The group is eventually discovered by a FEMA-like (Federal Emergency Management Agency) group that force them out of the Bathtub. Wink's deteriorating health makes Hushpuppy's need to know her mother, a woman Wink will not disclose, more pressing.

I am reminded slightly of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life as I watch Beasts of the Southern Wild. Zeitlin, like Malick, employs elements of fantasy and pre-historic creatures to symbolize the state of the world, the creation of Earth in The Tree of Life and the end of the world in Beasts of the Southern Wild. It is not a new technique for directors to challenge their audience by over-indulging on symbolism, but it can be entirely frustrating as a viewer to try to piece together all the symbols and metaphors. I knew watching the film that Quvenzhané Wallis' performance would stay with me for a long time. A week later, I can close my eyes and clearly picture her huge eyes pleading with me. There is something so special and monumental about her performance. She was even able to evoke the same emotion through voice-over! I have not been overly impressed by film year, except for Moonrise Kingdom, and I am not exactly excited for the rest of the year. The official TIFF films were released this week and I was not overly enthused. Beasts of the Southern Wild is definitely a fantastic film that tries slightly too hard to an allegory. I would have preferred if Zeitlin had taken his foot off the pedal at certain points, but the film is strong and features a performance from Quvenzhané Wallis that will blow you away.

My rating: 3.75 stars out of 4.

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