By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)
Having garnered the top Grand Jury prize at Sundance last January, the mythical fantasy Beasts of the Southern Wild additionally gobbled up the 2012 Cannes’ Caméra d’Or (defined as “the Best Feature Film encompassing all official and parallel selections”).
Not that there’s anything run-of-the-mill about mythical fantasies, but here it’s as if the spirit of Maurice Sendak got loopy on a little too much rum while hanging around the bayous and barges of Cajun country. (Instead of a hero named Max, we get the heroine Hushpuppy.) Throw in a couple of natural catastrophes, bundles of fireworks and voila! filmmaker Benh Zeitlin has created one hell of a wild and wooly beast.
Zeitlin has examined the world of Southern Louisiana previously. His 2008 short, Glory at Sea, recounts the story of a man who builds a boat out of New Orleans debris in order to rescue family members trapped beneath the sea. Now, with his first feature of Beasts of the Southern Wild, Zeitlin continues his theme of survival in a post-Katrina world. Here, a man acutely aware of his own impending end-of-days, has to shake his 6-year-old daughter into extreme survival mode, making her scream out her power at the top of her lungs. Consider this tale a “coming of rage.”
It might make for one fascinating cinephile weekend to view the documentaries of Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke and Harry Shearer’s The Big Uneasy – and then, thoroughly steeped in all the sad reality of the upended Gulf Coast communities, top it off with Zeitlin’s exuberant, eye-filling take on the imagined day after, in which the all-but-forgotten bayou denizens have found a way to exist in an area south of the city’s levees called “the Bathtub.” It’s not just the Southern Delta that’s gone mad; in this tale, global warming is wreaking havoc on the planet, with ice caps melting and prehistoric beasts called Aurochs – finally freed from a Neptunian freeze-dry – find themselves newly reconstituted and on the move. (Picture shaggy, Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs, blown up to the size of generous minivans.)
The tale is told from the point of view of an intrepid six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (played by newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis). The motherless child lives in her own little trailer, while her daddy Wink (another newcomer, Dwight Henry) resides in a nearby shack. Wink isn’t as dismissive as he first appears – in his own clumsy way, he’s doing his best to teach his daughter how to stand on her own two tiny feet. The fact that he’s dying of some cancerous malady forces his sense of urgency.
This isn’t a formally structured story; rather, it’s a series of sequences depicting a small parish’s struggle to preserve its spirit, cobbling together whatever scraps of dwellings remain. Other than the aggressive Wink, Hushpuppy learns life lessons from the strict schoolteacher Miss Bathsheba (Gina Montana), a veritable boatload of honorary uncles, aunts and cousins, as well as the animals that the little girl cherishes and studies. In one scene, she cradles a live baby chicken, followed by her daddy casually throwing a plucked bird on the cooker. Perhaps it is this all-inclusive humanity, along with her humor and bravery, that relegates the child to a higher state of being.
No question, it is Wallis’ Hushpuppy that makes the film extraordinary. Her range of emotion, and her capacity to communicate such extreme states without one false note, and with such an abundance of personality, lifts this story to dizzying heights. As her volatile, fiercely loving father, Henry is also a natural – so much so, it’s hard to believe that he never acted previously.
Beasts of the Southern Wild isn’t perfect; like those Aurochs loping through the film, the script is often untamed and wanders off, such as in the third act when Hushpuppy and a group of little girls go exploring. But with its unique cast, its radiant cinematography (receiving yet one more Sundance award) and wondrous effects that won’t leave your memory anytime soon, Beasts of the Southern Wild treats us to a cinematographic animal of a whole other kind.
Rating on a scale of 5 instances of being caught between Auroch and a hard place: 4
Release date: June 27, 2012 (ltd.)
Directed by: Benh Zeitlin
Screenplay by: Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin
Based on the stage play “Juicy and Delicious” by: Lucy Alibar
Cast: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry
Running Time: 93 minutes