Usually, I finish a review with any appropriate chatter about the film's awards prospects, but today we are discussing Beasts of the Southern Wild, deservedly being called the biggest awards contender released during the first eight months of the year. It has been a modest success in limited release, and many of you may not even be aware that it exists, but everyone will have heard of it by February. At this point, I would say that the film is practically guaranteed Picture and Actress nominations at the Oscars. Adapted Screenplay, Director, Score, Cinematography, Supporting Actor, and Editing also seem entirely possible, in roughly that order of likelihood.
The film is the debut feature from director Behn Zeitlen, who also co-wrote the script and co-composed the score. He cast it with first time actors native to the region of Louisiana in which the film takes place. I usually avoid synopses, but the film is so low on the public's radar right now, that I feel it is appropriate in this case. "Beasts" tells the story of Hushpuppy, a five year old girl being raised by her father in The Bathtub, a small, barely afloat island located on the wet side of the levees. But then, her father falls deathly ill, and Hushpuppy must set out on a desperate search for a cure, her absent mother, and acceptance. Meanwhile, fierce beasts from the ancient past called Aurochs are being released from their frozen tombs. It sounds all over the place, but nothing could be more intricately woven together.
Young Quvenzhane Wallis, who plays Hushpuppy, is about to become the youngest Best Actress nominee (maybe winner?) in history. Her performance is one of the greatest I have ever seen from a child actor (especially one SO young). This film rests so heavily on her shoulders and she carries it like it was nothing. Maybe she was too young and inexperienced to be afraid, but she is fearless. Hushpuppy's emotional journey and transformation is so complex that most girls her age would find it impossible to comprehend, let alone convey.
The supporting cast is also nearly flawless, especially Dwight Henry who plays Hushpuppy's ailing father Wink. Though not nearly as prominent a presence in the film as Wallis, he is still given plenty of scenery to chew playing a loving man, but one who is proud, and rough around the edges, dealing with his impending demise and the slow demise of his way of life. A man who is running out of time in which to prepare his daughter to live through both. All of that drama, and yet Henry never abandons his naturalistic, imminently believable style of delivery.
Technically, the film is very well put together, especially considering its shoe string budget. The overall look and atmosphere are a sort of lush squalor. All of the production elements fit together so well that even someone as accustomed to picking movies apart as I am, barely took notice of them on first viewing. I was too caught up in the story and the acting. I will have to reassess when the film is released on DVD.
I have read a lot of opinions about the thematic focus of "Beasts". The most common of these focus on Katrina or Global Warming and it is about those things in a way. Hushpuppy sums it all up early in the film when she says that if one thing is broken then nothing can be right until that original thing that was wrong is fixed. This idea is revisited in microcosm throughout the film, but it is also the whole key to Hushpuppy's world.
The community of the bathtub lives as communally with the natural world as possible. Wink has raised Hushpuppy to see herself as an animal, never forgetting that it is only our strength and intelligence that keep the natural world at bay. Wink looks at the dry world on the other side of the levy, and asks, "Isn't it ugly?".
What is broken is man's connection to his animal nature, his awareness that he is a part of the natural order of things. This leads to the icecaps melting. This frees the Aurochs from the ice caps. This makes the storms rise higher and higher. This is what makes Hushpuppy doubt herself and fail to face her fears as she realizes how sick her daddy is. By the film's end, she has remembered her lessons and taken her place as "the king of the bath tub".
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a creative and captivating piece of smart indie film making from a director that no one ever saw coming. It won Sundance, it charmed Cannes, and it is now seriously rivalling The Dark Knight Rises for my favorite film of the year designation. If you don't catch it quickly while it is still in theaters, you will wish you had when you see it on DVD. It's an experience best engulfed by. 5 of 5*
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