Beasts of the Southern Wild

6:00 AM PST 01/24/2012 by Todd McCarthy
Jess Pinkham

Benh Zeitlin makes his directorial debut with an exceptional indie that focuses on the struggles of the poorest people in the U.S.

One of the most striking films ever to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a poetic evocation of an endangered way of life and a surging paean to human resilience and self-reliance. Shot along the southernmost fringes of Louisiana, cast with nonactors and teeming with creativity in every aspect of its being, Benh Zeitlin's directorial debut could serve as a poster child for everything American independent cinema aspires to be but so seldom is. A handcrafted look at the struggles of some of the poorest people in the U.S. is no prescription for commercial success, but the presence of a dynamite little girl at the center of things could push this entirely elating drama into a successful specialized theatrical release.

The first few minutes alone establish Zeitlin as some kind of heir to Terrence Malick in the way he makes nature register onscreen. The images of thick green flora and fauna, the wildlife that is always "feedin' and squirtin'," in the words of the young heroine, the proximity of water and land and the sense of the area's precariousness (stuck out on its own away from the mainland but within sight of a hulking industrial area) all back up 6-year-old Hushpuppy's contention that she and her dad live in "the prettiest place on Earth."

At the same time, the area, called The Bathtub, is grimly depressing. Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) and her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), live in filthy, jury-rigged quarters propped up on precarious stilts. The locals, who run the racial gamut, love to party and dance and are always drinking, but they possess the fierce pride of outcasts, holdouts and mavericks.

The tough-minded local schoolteacher instructs the kids about how they're all simply meat, just like the other creatures that surround them, and while Hushpuppy firmly believes everything in life is interconnected, she's warned by the teacher that, "Any day now, the fabric of the universe is coming unraveled." While this sort of statement might suggest an imminent big ecological lesson, the forecast seems entirely organic to a place so recently ripped apart by Hurricane Katrina. More important, the characters here are not intellectuals, scientists or politicians.

Hushpuppy must contend with a father who, when not off hunting or fishing, is often drunk, angry and not above striking her. It's part of the wonder of Wallis' amazing performance that her tenacity and fortitude seem absolutely real, not posed or artificially induced. Like Wallis, selected from among a reported 4,000 applicants for the role, Henry had never acted before and registers powerfully as both a caring and quite scary character.

Things go from bad to worse after a big storm and the subsequent dynamiting of a levee by Wink, his daughter and some cronies, after which The Bathtub is declared a mandatory evacuation area.

Undetectably based on a play (by co-scenarist Lucy Alibar), Beasts casts a spell, one that emanates from the strange world it inhabits and evokes as well as from the extraordinarily sensitive and expressive way Zeitlin and his colleagues have rendered it. The director assembled a sort of collective of artisans to collaborate on this feature, and what has come of it -- in the way the exquisite images, fleet cutting, exotic music, vivid nature­scapes, native people and local language merge so seamlessly -- is a movie that pulsates with the stuff of life. It's very much an art piece, but it feels like a genuine one that speaks fluently and truly for the place, people and culture it depicts.

Distributor Fox Searchlight
Cast Quvenzhane Wallis, Dwight Henry
Director Benh Zeitlin
No MPAA rating, 92 minutes

 

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