Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Cinema, over its century of existence, has served two purposes, often separate and occasionally united. On one hand, it has provided a window into entire worlds and unfamiliar universes, an escape from our daily lives. Conversely, it also has the power to take that window and turn it into a mirror, forcing us to look deep into our own lives and the realities we face. Most films determine to make distinctions between one or the other, keeping fantastical elements separate from real ones, yet a few will dare to blend both into a single entity. Such is the ambition of Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, a fable whose individual pieces fascinate, yet don’t quite seamlessly cohere.

The central force of Beasts is its smallest scrapper, a young girl by the name of Hushpuppy, played with unrelenting passion by Quvenzhane Wallis. With no prior acting experience whatsoever, Wallis carves a deep impression as she cares for her ailing father in what is never stated as, yet assumed to be post-Hurricane Katrina Louisiana. Hushpuppy, with childlike logic, simply calls it “The Bathtub.” The world of the film is seen through her eyes, and this is where fantasy meets reality. Intertwined with her grounded day to day life is Hushpuppy’s keen awareness of a bigger plan which may constitute the end of the world. Much of her ruminating comes from voiceover a la Days of Heaven, but in this case her folksy philosophizing comes off as much more thematically explicit. From the pieces of the universe, to her relationship with her father, Hushpuppy seems to have a solid grasp on life for being so young, which takes away from her character, but not Wallis’ performance.

Above all, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a film of meticulous texture, whose mis-en-scene and characters are wholly integrated together. The camera follows everything spontaneously, a reflection of mindset of the residents of this water clogged domain. Evocations of New Orleans in September of 2005 are apparent, yet there is a dominating feeling of otherworldliness, as if one has set foot on an undiscovered country. This is a credit to the production design, which contributes immensely to the blend of realism and fantasy. As a narrative, the film is quite loose, and for the exception of a few key beats, drifts along much like characters. There is a sense of community amongst those who live in “The Bathtub,” even if they are unable to properly cope with the devastation beset upon them. This calls into question how effective this community is if it remains ostracized from the rest of society. Sure, there is admiration to be found in the citizens’ tremendous sense of territorial pride, but the film shies away from asking more pressing questions, namely, how can a society like this continue to survive? Hushpuppy faces conflicts of her own, but she fails to grow as a character, even when faced with the most dire of circumstances. Though it succeeds marvelously with visual sumptuousness and rich texture, Beasts of the Southern Wild remains a film about beasts, and not about people.

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~ by romancinema on August 12, 2012.

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