Saturday, July 14, 2012
It makes me a little crazy that what may be the best film of the year opened the same week as Comic-Con. "Beasts of the Southern Wild" (opened July 13 at Landmark's Hillcrest and La Jolla Village Theaters) already won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance and the Camera D'or at Cannes, and is on my short list for the year's best. (You can check out my video interview with the director and cast here.)
Trying to describe "Beasts of the Southern Wild" seems fruitless, like trying to describe the quality of moonlight -- suffice it to say that it's lovely to behold and somehow magical. The film is based on the stage play Juicy and Delicious by Lucy Alibar. It focuses on a young girl named Hushpuppy (played by Quvenzhané Wallis), who lives in a place in southern Louisiana known as The Bathtub. Hushpuppy lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) in a pair of makeshift structures that most outsiders would deem unsuitable for shelter but it's home for Hushpuppy. These are strong, resilient people but nature is about to test them yet again with a storm that threatens to put the Bathtub underwater. Nature also thaws out a herd of massive pre-historic creatures called Aurochs that threaten to consume the inhabitants of the tiny Bathtub. That's right. Pre-historic creatures. It may sound odd and difficult to imagine but it works, and it works stunningly.
Here's the trailer to provide a flavor of what the film's like.
I have to confess that I had doubts about a white kid from New York being the right person to bring a tale about African Americans living on the outermost edge of the Bayou to the screen. I wondered how could he possibly know their story and have the ability to tell it right. But within moments, the film had me convinced. Then talking to him and the cast (check out the video) made me realize why he was so successful. He came to Louisiana as an outsider but has now become a "transplant," and his process of making the film was a highly collaborative one. He cast locals who had never acted before and then enlisted their help in making the story feel real and true to its location. The result is sheer cinematic poetry -- both fierce and beautiful.
Everything about the film is right because there's such an attention to detail. The surreal quality -- or perhaps magic realism would be a better way to describe the visual style -- of the film stems from the fact that it's all told from the point of view of tiny, 6-year-old Hushpuppy. She filters reality through a child's eye so everything is vivid and sharp in terms of the details and impact but not tethered to hard facts. This is a film about emotional truths rather than facts. So an old basketball jersey on a wall with a face drawn above it is all Hushpuppy needs to summon up her absent mother's presence in the room and to carry on a conversation with her. And a cardboard playhouse serves as her cave walls where she paints the story of her life for future generations to find. She has a sense of her place in the universe; she may be tiny and seemingly insignificant but she has a function to serve.
Hushpuppy's narration flows easily and immediately engages us. She adores her father and learns from him that there's no place for crying or feeling sorry for yourself. He preaches strength and resilience, and that's part of what makes the film feel different from the many others that focus on characters that have so little. To the outside world, Hushpuppy and Wink are have nots -- they have few possessions and what little they have can be taken away in an instant if nature so chooses. But they do not want for things. Often films like this feel the need to tug on heartstrings or wear their heart on their sleeve to try and elicit pity or some sort of liberal knee jerk response. But director Benh Zeitlin doesn't want to do any of that. He wants to show the strength of these characters, their fearlessness, their radiant joy, their ability to look any challenge squarely in the face, and their ability to survive. The characters in the film, because they do have few material possessions, feel a fierce connection to the land and have made choices about staying that they want respected. Zeitlin depicts their life with a mix of realism and poetry. Bringing in the Aurochs adds a kind of mythic quality to the story and suggests that perhaps the Bathtub, like the prehistoric creatures, is heading for extinction, that perhaps this is a culture about to disappear or be reclaimed by nature.
Although neither Henry nor Wallis has ever acted before, they are completely at ease and natural in front of the camera as riveting as well. Zeitlin correctly determined that by casting from people in the area he would have a verisimilitude that he could never hope to find with professional actors. In real life Henry has found himself chest deep in water trying to save his home so he knows what that's like in a very real way. The cast makes this film and Zeitlin is smart enough to understand that and to just give them the space to create characters that hold us rapt.
Zeitlin also assembles a stellar technical team. The cinematography and sound design on the film are exquisite. When a storm hits and the thunder rattles the flimsy walls, you feel the power of nature and want to huddle down in your seat for safety. Visually, the film captures the beauty and ferocity of nature, qualities that are also found in the people. All in all it is just a breathtaking package that captures a unique way of life in order to hold it up and show us how precious the smallest things can be. This film earns its emotional scenes and makes the emotions feel genuine.
"Beasts of the Southern Wild" (rated PG-13 for thematic material including child imperilment, some disturbing images, language and brief sensuality) is a breathtaking work of art. Like it's characters it displays passion, strength, and fierce beauty. Please make an effort to support work like this. Films like this don't happen very often and they need to be encouraged.
Companion viewing: "George Washington," "Princess Mononoke," "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts"