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Beasts of the Southern Wild: An Exquisite Journey

July 4, 2012

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Beasts of the Southern Wild.

I sat here for more than an hour with just that one sentence: Beasts of the Southern Wild. Technically, it isn’t a sentence, but we all know writers get away with breaking the rules of grammar for dramatic purpose. Beasts of the Southern Wild. I sat here for so long because it’s such a powerful, overwhelming film that I wasn’t sure where to start, what to do next and certainly didn’t know how to end it. I went in with expectations; this little film is carrying a huge pedigree – it won the Grand Jury Prize and Cinematography Award (Dramatic competition) at Sundance and picked up the Camera d’Or, FIPRESCI Prize, Prix Regards Jeune and a Prize of the Ecumenical Jury Special Mention at Cannes, as well as awards from various other film festivals. Right now, it’s already on the shortlist for Oscar consideration. Yes, I went in with high expectations. And first-time director Benh Zeitlin delivered.

The cast, headed up by six-year-old (at the time of filming), Quvenzhané Wallis (learn the pronunciation now, you’ll need it come Oscar time: Kwe-VEN-zhah-nay), is made up mostly of locals with little to no acting experience. Wallis plays Hushpuppy, a sprite of a thing in rubber boots and a wild afro. Destined to be listed alongside such rambunctious, yet enduring, characters as Scout Finch and Huck Finn, Hushpuppy has been taught that life is tough and how to look after herself. From “feeding time” to having her own house, she’s painted as an everychild, a figure who is wise beyond her years and who can handle any punches life throws her way. Of course, that’s because her daddy, Wink (played by New Orleans baker Dwight Henry), is teaching her to be self-reliant, teaching her to be a man.Yes, a man. Because that’s what he is. And he’s sick. He’s well aware that she will have to be more than tough, she will have to be a force, if she’s going to make it in the life that they live in The Bathtub.

Set in the southernmost part of Louisiana, The Bathtub is based on the real-life Isle de Jean CharlesIt is full of colorful characters, clearly way more intelligent than their impoverished lives would suggest. Rather than working within the stereotypical archetypes seen in the likes of Swamp People, Zeitlin, along with co-writer Lucy Alibar (who wrote the stage play “Juicy and Delicious,” upon which the film is loosely based), the characters eschew expectations – yes, they are strong-willed and defiant against a government that wants to remove them from a murky situation, but they are also fiercely independent and know how to make the most of what they have. There’s a clear-cut serenity among the ruins.

I have a lot to say about the piece, from the symbolism of the pre-historic beasts, free from their tombs of ice due to global warming to the resilience of the young girls after being warmed by the loving glow of maternal figures at a whorehouse. The way in which the characters of The Bathtub celebrate life rather than mourn death, the scenes of little Hushpuppy being taught to “beast it” when she eats crab rather than waste time with a knife, the way they catch fish… all of these individual scenes come together in a beautifully woven tapestry that tells the story that, as said by our star, “In a million years, when kids go to school, they gonna know: once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub.”

I would be remiss not to mention Henry’s lived-in portrayal of Wink. Wink is a very astute man, aware of both the uncertainty of his future and the clear-cut certainty of his daughter’s. As he tries to teach Hushpuppy to be “the man,” your heart will feel it. When it dawns on you, as a viewer, exactly what you’re seeing, you can’t help but get a lump in your throat.

There are more – many more – scenes that should be highlighted. But, I want you to see it for yourself and I want you to experience the wonder, as I did. When you go, I want you to listen, really listen, to the words this young girl is saying. Rarely does a film come out with such poetic, resounding lines. “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece… the whole universe will get busted,” notes Hushpuppy. And again, she says, “Everybody loses the thing that made them. The brave men stay and watch it happen. They don’t run.” I hear glimpses of the gorgeously-written Eve’s Bayou (Kasi Lemmons) and Dr. Maya Angelou in Beasts of the Southern Wild. It’s deep. It’s moving. It’s beautiful.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is playing in select theaters now and will probably continue a slow rollout. If it’s not playing in your city yet, keep an eye out. I rarely watch movies more than once. I will be back at the theater next week to re-watch this one. If you’ve already seen it – or after you have – let me know what you think. It’s one of those movies that gets even better when you discuss it. I went with friends and we stood outside the theater for 30 minutes talking about the nuances, the beauty, the power. I look forward to getting your views.

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Not following me on Twitter yet? Get on the sofa: @josephrileyland
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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 4, 2012 9:56 PM

    I keep hearing about this film from coast to coast. I need to make it a point to support it!

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