Friday, June 29, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

BEAUTY IN THE BATHTUB                   
by Zac Sanford

Beasts of the Southern Wild takes us deep into the murky waters of the south, not within the safety net of the Louisiana levee system, but just on the other side, in a little commune known as the Bathtub.  Here, the few residents celebrate all that life has to offer them, not confined to work nine-to-five, but to survive off the land, eating those animals that you've raised, spending time with friends and family, but ultimately, surviving even the worst of storms.

Wink (Dwight Henry) knows his time remaining on this planet is coming to an end, so he must take all he's learned in his years and pass it along to his daughter, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis).  Once he's gone, she'll have no one left to call family.  Her mother has been gone for countless years, and there really isn't any explanation of what happened to her, other than she simply "swam away."  Life is tough in the Bathtub, so Hushpuppy must learn to catch crawfish barehanded, survive on what little food she can find (even when it isn't meant for human consumption), and ultimately to survive.

Hushpuppy looks up to her father, and with great direction from first timer Benh Zeitlin, along with the superb camerawork of Ben Richardson, everything in the film hovers over her.  The camera movement is free flowing, shot from the hip, as Beasts is a film from the point of view of our six-year old narrator.  In less capable hands, and without the huge influence of Terrence Malick on Zeitlin, the film could easily fall into heavy melodrama as Wink and Hushpuppy are dealt a worse fate than any that came before.

Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry

When a flash-flood of epic proportions (similar in scope to that of Hurricane Katrina) slams into the Bathtub, Wink and Hushpuppy must hold on tight. Wink yells to his daughter over the pounding rain in the shack, stacked high above the ground to avoid being carried away by the waters.  She must be strong; she must not get scared.  The storm will pass, and once again, life will go on within the bayou.  But this is no normal storm.  The bathtub has been ravaged.  Pets and animals that were meant to be food have all but vanished.  The water is too polluted to drink, but somehow, our characters know they must be strong and continue living as a community.

The haunting images of the flooded bayou are enough to break any viewer's heart.  The shacks that are homes to the locals have varying levels of damage.  Even the local bar will be on short supply as no one will be coming in and out of the area for quite some time.  So Wink and a couple cohorts decide to head on out to the levee, to find a way to release some of the pressure, allowing them to live a somewhat normal life, at least in their eyes.

Hushpuppy is once again left to survive on her own.  This is her land and her people, and through her constant narration, she will do whatever it takes to find the way to a lighthouse where she feels her mother has been living.  And if it isn't just to see her mother, it is also to escape the Aurochs, beasts formerly frozen in ice, but now free due to global warming, that are in route to the bathtub.

Quvenzhane Wallis
Beasts has been the buzz on the festival circuit since it premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival.  What this film lacks in stars, it more than makes up for in the visual imagery and the wonderful performances that easily catapulted it to win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and the Caméra d'Or award at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.  One has to wonder why Fox Searchlight decided to release the film so early in the year.  As it stands right now, it is easily the front-runner for many end-of-the-year top-ten lists and countless nominations for its cast and crew.

Most notably of all are the performances by first-time actors, Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry.  Wallis was only five years old when she was cast from a local call of over 4,000 submissions.  While most films with kid leads are sunk by their young actors, she shines and carries the film, filling the frame with such a force of emotion and heart.  Dwight, a local baker in New Orleans, carries a heavy burden of impending death and of constant sorrow. It is amazing to think he and his costar had no previous training before being cast in the film.  They both embody their characters, and it will be interesting to see if either of them are able to break through and have a career in their future.  As of release, Dwight Henry will next be seen in Steve McQueen's Twelve Years a Slave.

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