Friday, September 28, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) Review

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Occasionally, a nearby theater will have an opening for a week or two and decide to show an indie festival favorite that had been gaining buzz for the past few months. Last semester, after feverishly searching for a couple weeks, I was able to find a nearby showing of the highly acclaimed action film “The Raid,” and it didn’t disappoint. Now, as Oscar season looms on the horizon, this will become more common, and the past week offered showings of the Cannes Film Festival favorite “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

There isn’t much of a conventional plot running through the film; it’s mostly meandering around (though not necessarily in a detrimental way) as the camera follows Hushpuppy and her father as they live in The Bathtub. The Bathtub is an island off the coast of Louisiana where a community of people living on the fringes of society has taken up residence. It’s not a glamorous place to live, but the people have a bond together and are proud to call the place their home. So when a hurricane floods the area and the government comes in to remove them, they refuse help because they have grown so accustomed to taking care of themselves.

There are certainly parallels to Katrina at play here, but “Beasts” doesn’t want to cater to current event emotional manipulation and instead remains steadfast and focused on the tough relationship between father and daughter. It’s certainly an odd relationship, partly fueled by the loss of Hushpuppy’s mother, and the heart of the film is about watching these two find mutual ground together and grow closer, without resorting to a trite, clich├ęd handling of the material. As non-actors plucked out of obscurity to create a more palpable air of reality, Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry give performances as natural and nuanced as the best actors working today in the industry.

Wallis is the reason the film has been gaining significant traction since the festival showings, and it’s easy to see why. For a girl who was only five-years-old during filming and even contributed to the writing of her character, she’s a pint-sized wonder that powers through the film with incredible conviction and will. Hushpuppy is just as capable of taking care of herself as the adults surrounding her; and just like most other children her age, she has a certain degree of imagination too.

While it isn’t a pertinent portion of the plot, “Beasts” also has elements of magic realism that balances out the gritty setting of the Bathtub. Throughout the film, Hushpuppy is referencing tales of a creature called the aurochs. According to her tale, the titular beasts of the film were frozen under the ice caps, and that the storm that ravaged the Bathtub is linked to thawing them out of this. This is where I can see some viewers feeling a sense of  disconnect, as this element of the plot could feel disingenuous and out-of-place. However, the aurochs are a metaphorical element of the story that gives its themes more significance and the film a unique quality that makes it stand out from the usual crop of stripped-down indie dramas that it is clearly related to.

Even though “Beasts” is certainly a very good film and is worthy of the attention it has been getting, I’m not sure I completely fell in love with it as much as others did/will. The lack of a straightforward plot was not an issue, as I’ve seen many other films in a similar vein, although I would have liked more connective tissue to carry it from scene to scene. A more prominent through-line would have helped the make the structure more fluid and some scenes have more impact.

Ultimately, this doesn’t drag the film down too much, but it kept it from transforming from an impressive, very good film to a truly great one. Even with those caveats, the surprising performances and unconventional chemistry between Wallis and Henry injects the film with the life it needs to stand out among the crowd. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a piece of filmmaking where the rough edges haven’t quite been sanded off, but the shots of imagination and verisimilitude that break through the surface give it a singular identity and life all its own.


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