Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

I can say with a high degree of confidence that I won't see a more unusual film this year than Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild. Although it owes a clear debt to Terrence Malick, echoing The Tree of Life in its celebration of the interconnectedness of all things, the old-souled child heroine of Beasts is actually a cousin to the children of David Gordon Green's George Washington. Hushpuppy (the remarkable 6-year old Quvenzhane Wallis) lives in coastal Louisiana outside the protection of the levees in an area known as the Bathtub, a staggeringly poor but raucous community whose residents seem content to live outside of modern American society. Hushpuppy's father Wink (Dwight Henry) is an unstable alcoholic whose body and mind are both failing. Hushpuppy is too often forced to fend for herself but is looked after by a loving and racially mixed community, especially the formidable teacher Miss Bathsheeba (Gina Montana). It is Miss Bathsheeba's tales of melting ice caps and the wild cattle known as aurochs that ignite the movie. Zeitlin puts us inside the head of his young main character, cutting to images of polar ice and a digitally rendered herd of aurochs as Hushpuppy (in voice-over) tries to express what understands but can't express: her world is falling apart. It's probably easy to read too much into a child's performance, but Wallis' reserve and blankness suggest great depths. Both Wallis and the equally good Henry make their film debuts in Beasts; I don't want to overpraise their naivete, but any sense of process or performance in these characters would have ruined the movie and disconnected us from Hushpuppy's struggle for the most basic kind of survival.

Hurricane Katrina is never mentioned in Beasts of the Southern Wild, but to the residents of the Bathtub the name of the devastating storm that floods their homes doesn't matter anyway. Hushpuppy and Wink form an ad hoc community with a few surviving friends and wait for the waters to recede and it's here that Beasts runs into trouble. The movie's insistence on a pure, natural way of living outside the confines of American society (the Bathtub's surviving residents fight being taken to shelters) is noble and deeply American in its own way, but a scene of the transplanted Bathtubbers staging a breakout from their shelter is hard to deal with and a moment where Wink attempts to assure Hushpuppy's future is glossed over too quickly. More troubling still is Wink's involvement in the dynamiting of a levee after which (we're told) "the water goes away." Are we supposed to think that Wink caused flooding somewhere else? I'd like to sit down with a survivor of Katrina and show them this scene, and I wonder if they'd have a slightly different take from the critical mainstream. There's a good deal in Beasts that's outsized and even fantastical (those aurochs show up again), and that material doesn't mix well with scenes that skirt around the edges of the historical record. When Beasts sticks to its moving core relationship it's a truly unusual vision, but Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar (who wrote the play that's the movie's source material) want to make the movie mean too much. Yet despite its flaws, Beasts of the Southern Wild survives on the heart of its heroine. Hushpuppy is America in 2012: alive, angry, and waiting for what comes next.

No comments: