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Movie Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild

July 20, 2012

There’s no question that Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of the most beguiling and original movies you will see this year, if not this decade. The film cannot be pigeonholed into any particular genre; it’s whimsical and dreamy at times, but devastatingly sad in others.

Like Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, there is no real plot. Beasts takes place in a fictional community dubbed “the bathtub” due to it’s positioning on one side of a levee. Clearly, this is supposed to be a thinly veiled reference to New Orleans. Modern civilization exists on the other side. The bathtub is a melting pot of individuals who live in squalor along the banks of a swampy river. Their meager shacks make the house in Winters Bone look like an absolute palace by comparison. Rickety lean-to sheds are constructed from whatever junk was lying around. Their homes are filthy and most of the inhabitants appear to have a serious hoarding problem. But you know what? These people are happy and content where they are living; they scoff at the other side of the levee, declaring that they live in the most beautiful place on earth.

Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) is a fiercely independent six year-old who lives with her alcoholic (and ailing) father Wink (Dwight Henry). Hushpuppy’s reaction to his frequent alcohol fueled tirades is defiance, landing her in trouble many times. After hearing a fable about giant beasts called aurochs, she fears that they are stampeding their way into the bathtub, destroying everything in their path. She also frequently has visions of her mom, who left the family years ago.

Given that the two principal actors had no acting experience, the performances are amazing.  Wallis makes you want to reach through the screen and give Hushpuppy the hug she so wants from her father. She’ll linger with you for a long time. Wick is an interesting character. Though he is explosive when his anger is peaked, he never crosses the line into physical abuse. At the last second, he always manages to rein it in. You get the sense that he is doing the best he can under the circumstances. It also seems as though he might be holding her at arm’s length to prepare her for his rapidly approaching death, since she will be on her own.

Beasts has a distinctly surreal feel most of the time, particularly with the aurochs and the eccentric characters Hushpuppy comes in contact with. It also has a political undercurrent. The aurochs have been unleashed due to environmental changes, and the bathtub residents are forced to evacuate to a shelter when the bathtub floods, even though most of them would rather die than leave.

It’s a beautifully shot film, and first time director Benh Zeitlin (who also co-wrote the story) works wonders with a small budget.  It just goes to show that bigger is not better. This is far more evocative than most films out there. Love it or hate it, you haven’t seen anything like it.

Rating: 5/5



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