Sundance – Beasts of the Southern Wild

I happened upon Beasts of the Southern Wild quite by accident. I had an unexpected free morning one day at the festival and just drove to the nearest theatre to waitlist whatever may be showing.  It was fortunate that I wandered into that screening.  In a year where the competition films (and most of the others) were generally weak, I just happened to stumble into the best film at the festival.  The best film that’s shown at the festival in years.  I have been to lots of movies and Sundance, and I’ve never seen a movie get a standing ovation, let alone one that lasted for what felt like several minutes.  The festival recognized it too.  Beasts went on to when the Cinematography Award, as well as the Grand Jury Prize.  It’s now just been honored at Cannes, winning the Camera D’or.  It’s a wildly imaginative film full of triumph, magic and heart.

Beasts is Benh Zeitlin’s first full-length directorial effort.  He also wrote the script with Lucy Alibar, a first time writer, which is frankly kind of amazing.  The film takes place in southern Louisiana, in an area nicknamed ‘The Bathtub.’  There, a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy lives in an impoverished, but enchanting world with her alcoholic father.  Hushpuppy is played by a young actress named Quvenzhané Wallis and she is tremendous.  Zeitlin mentioned in the Q&A that the filmmakers saw over 3,000 children for the part.  This seemed to me excessive, until I saw her at work.

Hushpuppy’s community is tight-knit, they’re all so very poor, but all so very happy.  They live in shanties and rusted old trailers.  By eschewing traditional priorities like materialism, or having running water or electricity, The Bathtub is a place that values experiences, they have frequent get togethers, glorious parties with more crawfish and what I assume is moonshine than you can shake a fist at.  While Zeitlin was able to capture the wonder of childhood, he also managed to capture the difficult pains that come with growing up.  Despite Hushpuppy’s age, she’s indeed asked to grow up much sooner than she should.  Her father is dying.  Despite his alcoholism and, at times, his brutal approach to parenting, and despite her incredible independence (her father disappears for days at a time, and she even lives in her own house), she is still a six year-old little girl.

While her father doesn’t come out and say he’s dying, Hushpuppy’s a smart girl.  Her young mind, however, is not quite capable of processing it.  So at times, the story lends itself to a visual metaphor of her coming to terms with the situation.  I’m not quite sure how literally to take this side story (is it her imagination?), but I loved it.  She imagines (I think) great prehistoric monsters frozen in far away icecaps.  Each time we visit the monsters, they get closer and closer to The Bathtub, at first just breaking away from the icecaps, then floating through oceans while melting.  Eventually they reach land the huge thundering of their hooves gets more and more intense.  It’s unclear whether Hushpuppy, or the audience for that matter, is to fear the beasts or not and the moment when Hushpuppy finally meets them is certainly my favorite moment of the film.  This sounds like it could be hokey, I’m full aware.  But believe me when I tell you, it is gorgeously realized.

There’s a tremendous amount of talent obvious in Zeitlin’s direction.  Lots of people are drawing comparisons to Terrance Malick (I personally feel this actually a slight to Zeitlin, but I’m sure it was meant as a compliment) which Zeitlin lists among his influences.  Others include John Cassavettes, Emir Kusturica and Czech animator Jan Svankmajer.  He should be mentioned he also created the fantastic as well with Dan Romer.  I expect we’ll be seeing great things from him.



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2 Responses to “Sundance – Beasts of the Southern Wild”
  1. Jessica says:

    Ahh. Sundance zen. It happens so rarely.
    Jessica´s last blog post ..May 2012 Summation

  2. Bob Boldt says:

    We often forget, so I guess it is worth reminding ourselves just how difficult good art can be sometimes. Beasts is just such a reminder. I could not get past the first reel. It seems the director made nearly every wrong turn in this film. I even suspect I might have bought the concept if presented to me as a two-page treatment. Now I know in many films, especially those whose mise-en-scene involves the depiction of a child’s fantasy, suspension of disbelief is possible even necessary. In Beasts I found this suspension was required too early, too often and was too often unearned. Now I realize, when viewing reality largely through the eyes of a young child, the lens is often focused on fantasy and distorted expectations not on real places or events. Through young eyes that are not fully aware of things like causation, human motivation or other reasons for events that cannot be fully rationalized, the world can seem strange, inconsistent and contradictory. In a film however we should never be forced decide if such disparities can be explained by the child’s confused senses or the director’s confused direction and continuity.

    For example the little girl, Hush Puppy lives in what I took to be a metaphorical post-Katrina 9th Ward of New Orleans called The Bathtub. In spite of squalid poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, garbage just everywhere and really repulsive “pets,” we find a “happy” band of really horrid looking and badly behaving residents on what Hush Puppy takes to be a daily holiday. It’s Fellini a la Bunuel. Unexplained things keep happening and behaviors keep occurring that are not properly explained, resolved or understood, certainly not by us and apparently not even by Hush Puppy. On top of this there is a fair amount of seemingly gratuitous didacticism. Folks in the Bathtub think they are better than those rich folks living on the other side of the levy because they know how to survive in spite of their perpetual partying, substance abuse, inadequate shelter, poverty and mental illness. Sounds to me like a perfect recipe for disaster in any but the most addled imagination. This is a truly repellant romanticism. There is a whole lot of preaching about the imminent impacts of Global Warming and the physical and spiritual consequences of mankind’s lack of care of the planet. For me it just sounded preachy and didactic.

    There are a whole lot of unexplained situations and occurrences that just required too much unearned suspension of disbelief. For example there seems to be a ready supply of electricity and natural gas to the set. We see an operational stove and fully operational electric lights (practicals as filmmakers call them) in the scene and yet Hush Puppy’s father keeps decaying chickens in an ice cooler that has to be far more impractical and useless than the most antiquated electric or gas-driven refrigerator. The existing refrigerator looks to be used as a storage closet for non-perishables.

    At one point we find Hush Puppy and her father adrift in Lake Pontchartrain in front of a large new levee. That’s where the conversation about the survival of the Bathtub population takes place. They are floating in what looks like the flatbed of an old pickup truck. Never mind that such a craft would sink like a stone, there appears to be no way they got in the middle of the lake, no apparent reason for them to be there and no means to propel this unlikely craft. Now I can see a dozen or more ways a director with a modicum of talent or creativity could have created a suspension of disbelief sufficient to make this scene work. This director chose none of them.

    Throughout my brief attempt to view this film I kept thinking of how Terry Gilliam handled a very similar theme in Tideland. In comparison Beasts of the Southern Wild seemed inappropriate, clumsy and artless. I could go on with detail after detail of the many ways my viewing of the first twenty minutes of the film pissed me off, but as they say, “Ars longa, vita brevis”—especially in the case of bad art.


    Bob Boldt

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