Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012, Benh Zeitlin)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

There was a moment the afternoon we saw this movie on a gigantic screen at a multiplex when some sort of irony of expression became inescapable: we stayed until the credits were finished and were still having trouble holding back sobs as we walked out into the lobby to head home. While overcome with this emotion, we passed posters for ParaNorman, The Bourne Legacy, and various Spider-Men and Batmen and it was Amber who pointed out how much of a different world we seemed to be walking back into. At the same time, doesn’t this point out something wonderful about the variances in experience that a movie can capture?

This is director Benh Zeitlin’s first movie, and it certainly stands on a plane with Synecdoche, New York and Brick in the list of great recent debut films, only Zeitlin’s seems to have come from nowhere, and is so masterful in cinematic, storytelling, technical, and characterization terms it generates almost involuntary excitement. There’s so much to see and feel here. I was struck by how much more the story of plucky young Hushpuppy, a disenfranchised little girl living in squalor in southern Louisiana, in a flooded-out zone called the Bathtub, seemed to speak to me with truth and honesty about childhood than the Dardennes’ concurrent and perfectly serviceable The Kid with a Bike. The point is that regardless of the specific experiences of being a kid, the emotions are universal, and this film captures it the same way The 400 Blows once did — or even the same way that a film about a much more privileged child like Super 8 does. The underlying humanity is what matters, and Beasts of the Southern Wild captures it with assurance and shimmer, magic and terror.

One key to its powerful immediacy and success is the absence of a sense of “otherness” to its characters, a brood of very poor and decent but deeply flawed regular folks doing their best, like Jonathan Demme characters in some sort of magical-realist poem. Like its characters, kind-hearted people with amply displayed flaws that can seem downright horrific from our perspective but are day-to-day normal for Hushpuppy, it’s celebratory of the world it depicts — just watch the glorious, disorienting opening ten minutes — but also skeptical of it, unflinching before the desperate straits therein. To criticize this as class condescension, I feel, misses the point; Zeitlin and writer Lucy Alibar operate on appropriate parallel planes because they refuse to either give anyone, Hushpuppy excluded since it’s her movie, a break, nor do they demonize anyone, or deny them the inalienable right to take pride in the life they have. This is especially resonant in regard to children, even less sheltered children, and so it is here. Hushpuppy can bound and race through her life without care, with only a rumbling and imprecise fear, and her father — fucked up and violent though he may sometimes be — creates that existence for her.

Of course, Beasts is reliant on the coming storm its title refers to: that’s the “real” storm, the Hurricane Katrina parallel, and the supernatural storm of the marching Aurochs, which climaxes in one of the film’s many soul-stirring, unforgettable visual scores. The question is, does the film’s depiction of New Orleanian culture edge closer to the “real” or to the “unreal”? I’ve heard both cases made by people who’ve lived there, but given that Zeitlin’s definition of the Southern gothic lies not in towering kudzu and Evangelical eccentrics, or in the Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil idle rich, but in floating trash and greasy food, I tend to have an easy time believe that he’s captured something here, however surreal it may be, that is unmistakably honest. And of course, my goodness, it’s exhilarating. I can’t think of a great number of movies more so. It starts with the musical score, vibrant and detailed, by the director and Dan Romer. Whatever instance of miraculous inspiration this folky, harrowingly propulsive and joyous music captures seems to emanate from the same mysterious place as the story itself.

Of the characters and corresponding performances, we can say only so much before hyperbole takes over, but tiny Quvenzhané Wallis is of course magnificent — from where, again we wonder, does something this deeply felt and mature come in so small a child? — and she single-handedly sells every goofball poetic thing the writers saddle Hushpuppy with, and how. Her dialogue and voiceover narration can bring you to tears long before you’ve any clue why. Meanwhile, the producers found consummate actor Dwight Henry, as Hushpuppy’s quietly dying father Wink, in a bakery across the street. Neither lead actor, both of whom receive prominent credit just after Zeitlin, has performed in any major capacity before. But both are already alarming, naturalistic professionals. They are the masters of this film, and they bring its characters to life, whether those characters are enigmatic like Wink’s or sparklingly direct like Hushpuppy’s.

Zeitlin meant for this to be a fairy tale, a big and oddball narrative of bombed-out levees (in a scene evoking The Bridge on the River Kwai) and spiky-roofed houses and housefires and homes buried under floods, with the danger of death looming above, but of course it’s finally just everyday life — the difference made entirely by Hushpuppy’s perspective, which becomes our own, and is every bit the illustration of childhood imagination of the sort Maurice Sendak once envisioned. Your goosebumps, your absorption come from the uniqueness of vision, the alternate clarity and haziness that retroactively renders even the moments that fleet past almost unbearably moving. The floating brothel sequence has haunted me since I saw it, the way it’s filmed like a scarcely-remembered, euphoric dream even as it happens; it’s shot the way a child meeting her mother for the first time might live in her memory, not the way it would happen, which makes it that much more serious and — that word again — “real.”

The originality comes with considerable respect, of course, for sources. Malick is everywhere, specifically Days of Heaven; Hushpuppy and Wink’s daring escape from the government compound adds this to the list of films that draw clear inspiration from E.T. that I nevertheless like far, far more than E.T. (others include In America and Super 8). And the hazy climactic meeting of Hushpuppy and her estranged mom is inevitably a Paris, Texas allusion, but one of the most heartfelt and heartbreaking such moments imaginable. This movie’s so much to tackle, really, and I can’t wait to see it again; once in a while you walk away from a film just simply throttled. I had that feeling with Children of Men, City of God, and Dancer in the Dark, a kind of mute awe, and I had it here. I felt I was seeing the birth of a collective voice, a window into a more optimistic future for American cinema than I generally can imagine. The movie’s a tearful, messed-up, bleeding masterpiece.

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