Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Forget for a moment the American fable told through the comic-book yarn. Forgo the adolescent superhero embodied (at least this week) in the resurrected person of one Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Consider instead, spending some time with a 6-year-old folk hero by the name of Hushpuppy.

She is the thumping heart of Benh Zeitlin's entrancing debut "Beasts of the Southern Wild” 

The little girl with the wild hair and the beautifully overstated sense of her own possibility is inhabited by newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis.

Hushpuppy will tell you in one of the finest voice-overs to grace a film in recent years that she and her daddy live in a place called the Bathtub. The fictional bayou community begins where the marsh yields to the Gulf in southern Louisiana. It is a place of magic and junk, joy and mourning, excess and awareness. It exists on the other side of a levee that protects the things culture values (for instance, chemical plants).

Shot on sumptuous Super 16mm by Ben Richardson, "Beasts" joins the ranks of works by Walt Whitman and Toni Morrison and William Faulkner before he became so damned and brilliantly dense, in singing a song of peculiarly American splendor. Yes, it is that literary.

Of course, this proclamation of transcendent artistry and the heralding of an exceptional talent in Zeitlin and his collective of like-driven collaborators known as Court 13, doesn't mean "Beasts" is beloved by all. Having already opened in New York and Los Angeles, the movie is receiving reviews glowing but also glowering.

And as much as this film has owned me from its opening minutes at the Sundance Film Festival, I understand wincing at scenes depicting the fiscally strapped but scrappy denizens of the Bathtub. Some find these folks romanticized and therefore condescended to. (Who you calling beasts?) And it's clear from a conversation with the director that he does indeed hold in impossibly high regard the sensual and sentimental relationship Hushpuppy and her people have with the natural world.

Wink Duchette is Hushpuppy's daddy. He's a widower. He is a drinker, and so it seems are many of his friends. Dwight Henry, also a newcomer to movie making, portrays Wink, who can be rough and disheveled but loving, too.

When we meet him, he's wearing a hospital gown. His unnamed condition may go some way in explaining why he lives separately from his daughter. Someday soon, she'll have to fend for herself. It is not an ideal situation for a child. Those in the audience who work for social services may want to check their fine instincts for child welfare at the door before entering this tale about childhood and chaos, about the ends of worlds and defiance. All would do well to remember, "Beasts" is told from the perspective of a babe. They think and say the darndest things.

"Beasts" is film as natural mystery museum. Hushpuppy is the gale force, a wild child with the kind of untamed hair sure to have black moms everywhere shaking their heads and reaching for the pressing comb. She occupies a world many of us did once: a cosmos where flora and fauna populate the days with pleasure and intrigue, a place where one could imagine a peculiar and future heroism.

The arc of the story is the confluence of Wink's illness with the flooding of the Bathtub. Surely, Hurricane Katrina blows through this tale of a place vulnerable but also resistent to cataclysm.

And music, so dear to New Orleans, the city Zeitlin adopted as his own, hits anthemic, celebratory, elegiac notes. Zeitlin co-wrote the score with Dan Romer.

For those who resented the critical love Terrence Malick's tone poem of a movie "Tree of Life" received last summer and feel a sense of déj… vu, we'll say "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is as poetic, its narrative nearly as elusive, but it stirs emotions early and deeply. And it has its own prehistoric creatures called Aurochs.

Editor Affonso Gonçalves, one of two editors who worked with Zeitlin on wrestling this beast into the beauty it has become, said: "We worked so hard on just the first 10 minutes of the film so that it would be this blast of life, of energy, of love and emotions ..." It is that and a tender, towering achievement.

— L. Kennedy, Denver Post

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Thu October 16, 2014, 7:30 only, VAC Basement Auditorium (1B20)

USA, 2012, in English, Color, 93 min, 1.85 : 1, 35mm • official site



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