Monday, July 9, 2012

Beasts Of The Southern Wild

Survival Of The Fittest On The Gulf Coast

Dwight Henry as Wink and Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy in Benh Zeitlin's drama "Beasts Of The Southern Wild". 
Fox Searchlight Pictures


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Monday, July 9, 2012

"Every single living thing is meat!  Humans are meat!  You are meat!"  These words are shouted early on in Benh Zeitlin's finely-textured drama "Beasts Of The Southern Wild", which expanded its release this past weekend in the U.S. and Canada.  The woman who speaks about meat displays one of her thighs.  It too is meaty, ample and prominent in the foreground of the film's frame.  Other close up shots of human skin will be glimpsed throughout in an abrupt way as if a physical marking of territory.  Much of Mr. Zeitlin's film, an affectation and allegory rather than a strictly narrative story, is fiercely visceral in its look at and examination of all creatures great and small.

Set in the Gulf Coast in Louisiana by the Mississippi Delta during a fierce hurricane (think: Hurricane Katrina), "Beasts Of The Southern Wild" is about the lessons of preservation and survival an ailing father, Wink (Dwight Henry), passes to his young daughter Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis).  Wink is a presence, a force of nature.  Hushpuppy is rebellious and headstrong.  For such a small girl she has a powerful imagination and the tenacity of Goliath.  She keeps on coming, and her volatile relationship with her dad takes on greater metaphorical meaning.  Their interactions make Mr. Zeitlin's film effective and riveting in its first hour (excellent Oscar-nominee worthy work from first-time actors Mr. Henry and Miss Wallis.)  Hushpuppy searches for her mother, fearing the worst for her father.

Unfortunately, the fine work of Mr. Henry and Miss Wallis, who keep this thunderously pulsing, rich and symbolic movie alive, is submerged by repetitive visual cues and exhaustive analogy, particularly in the film's second half.  I thoroughly understood the points Mr. Zeitlin was making about survival, about the harshness of nature being met with the vitality of nurture; about being hunted and endangered and potentially extinct amidst a landscape (the Gulf Coast) that time (and the world) essentially forgot.  Species have a way of dying out, and they have a way of surviving against the odds, too.  (You can't help but think of the BP oil spill disaster of 2010 and the idea that the surviving "creatures" in the film are the humans who are left in the Delta to fend for themselves.)

Yet after the film's opening hour there's nothing new to report or show the audience.  Lucy Alibar's and Mr. Zeitlin's screenplay offers few fresh ideas, insights, revelations or adventures in its second half.  There are repeated, tiresome bits of footage of wild beasts (described in the film as aurochs), and fire and brimstone exhortations, in what is an intimately tailored and oddly magical drama but little more.  I wish "Beasts Of The Southern Wild" had weight and substantive dramatic tension beyond the galvanizing energy of its opening hour.  I wish it were a deeper experience.  After a while the film becomes rooted in its haunting visions but nothing else.  The film's pulse and heartbeat weaken drastically.  I felt removed, nonplussed and almost lifeless by the time it ended.

For all its vibrancy, color and fine cinematography, "Beasts Of The Southern Wild", which was met with plenty of acclaim at Sundance and Cannes this year, struck me as a disappointment, not a triumph.  At times it towers in camaraderie, ambition and presentation but is hardly transfixing, transcendent or invigorating in the way that fellow Fox Searchlight release "The Tree Of Life" probed the existence of humans and their transgressions.  "Beasts Of The Southern Wild" is an anthropology fable that chronicles humans essentially as literal beasts except with the caliber of a much grittier, highly kinetic nature documentary.  And little Miss Wallis, not Sir David Attenborough, is narrating.

The raw performances, often physical, sometimes electrifying, expressive and powerful, are the film's great strength.  Mr. Henry is a businessman who has lived in Louisiana for many years and was caught squarely in the eye of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  He rescued people.  Having personally spoken to him I can say that he is a strong, wise, battle-tested individual, and his onscreen work as Wink evokes a pain, power and pride that are resolute and unwavering.  It's an indelible portrayal.  Miss Wallis is pure charm, ferocity and curiosity as the lovable, contentious Hushpuppy, a spirited child whose presence on the big screen is illuminating.  As the six-year-old Hushpuppy Ms. Wallis is wise beyond her years and displays phenomenal poise, discipline and maturity.  (Ms. Wallis was the same age as her character when "Beasts" was filmed.)  Both performers will excel and go a long way if they choose a career in film, and, most importantly, the right types of movies.  It's a shame that these wonderful performances came in an underwhelming film.

"Beasts Of The Southern Wild" had the potential to be a special film but parts of it felt pretentious, too lofty for its own perch.  Again, you can't help but admire the naturalism of the actors, who are as instinctive and improvisational as the blues and jazz musicians who riff at Preservation Hall in the Big Easy.  Admirable qualities aside, in the final analysis Mr. Zeitlin's film has broad shoulders and big bones but not enough meat on which to adequately feed its audience.

Also with: Gina Montana, Joseph Brown, Levy Easterly, Lowell Landes, Pamela Harper, Amber Henry, Kaliana Brower.

"Beasts Of The Southern Wild" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for thematic material including child imperilment, some disturbing images, language and brief sensuality.  The film's running time is one hour and 33 minutes. 

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