In 2011, The Tree of Life was the notable “alternate type” of film experience. For 2012, it’s Beasts of the Southern Wild — and it’s a good thing in both cases. Beasts places (nearly all of) us in a vastly different world of human existence and, more to the point, a completely different culture, asking us to engage this culture and its champion with compassion and to reconsider value judgments we might make about its love and community.
Hushpuppy is a six-year old girl who lives in a ramshakle house, next to her father’s ramshackle house, in The Bathtub — a community in southern Louisiana on the wrong side of the levee: The side that, when water rises, gets flooded to protect the people on the right side of the levee. One might say life is hard there, and it is, but perhaps the line between hard and different is not so clear as we think. In any case, this life is the only life Hushpuppy’s ever known. Through her world, the film takes us on an intricate journey of relationship, imagination, and experience. Running time: 93 min.
To jar us free from preconceptions so that we might see another’s world more clearly, Beasts of the Southern Wild departs from straightforward storytelling. There is a story arch, but it emerges slowly through a series of detailed and sometimes fragmented vignettes (hence the likeness to The Tree of Life, although Tree goes much further in this regard). Entering Hushpuppy’s world, we are challenged to observe our reactions and to ask ourselves with what breadth of brush we paint it. We might easily have a simple, broad, and singularly negative reaction to the conditions of squalor, even abuse, in which she lives, but is that the best we can do? Can we enter her perspective to see what, within her world, her heart is attached to and why? Similarly, do we simplistically judge her father’s relationship with her? Beyond our perceptions and judgments of life and culture in The Bathtub, how do we overlay our own world as a framework of perception on top of other cultures and peoples? What values and mores are properly relative or universal? Beasts’ meditative demeanor provides rich soil to root such questions, if we allow the seeds to be planted and sprout.
In his first major feature film, Benh Zeitlin displays outstanding filmcraft. From pacing and shot framing to use of narration and depiction of concrete detail (you can smell the food cooking), Zeitlin builds our access point into Hushpuppy’s world with compassion and acuity. Quvenzhané Wallis’ portrayal of Hushpuppy is excellent, as is Dwight Henry’s of her father, Wink — particularly considering it’s the first acting foray for each of them. The story lives both in life and in a mythical reality Hushpuppy creates in response to a school lesson — a myth that informs and strengthens the dignity of Hushpuppy’s world.
The film is excellent and very worth the time — I will be quite surprised if it does not garner an Oscar nomination. Just don't rush to conclusions about what the film wants from us.
In one scene, children enter a brothel; the prostitutes care for them like mothers. A child is almost trapped in a housefire. A parent hits a child, who hits back; they talk harshly to each other. Dead animals are shown as aftermath from a flood. A man coughs blood. Alcohol is often present. Some typically mild profanity throughout.
- Director: Benh Zeitlin
- Screenplay: Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin, based on stage play "Juicy and Delicious" by Lucy Alibar
- Leads: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry
- Cinematography: Ben Richardson
- Music: Dan Romer & Benh Zeitlin
- Info on IMDb
- Reviews on Rottentomatoes (85%)
- Reviews on Metacritic (86 of 100)
- Review on Film School Rejects (grade: A)
- Review by Paste Magazine (9.4 of 10)
- Review on Crosswalk.com
- Review on Christianity Today Movies (3.5 of 4)
- Watch the short film Glory at Sea, also directed by Benh Zeitlin, a precursor to Beasts?
- Buy Beasts of the Southern Wild on Amazon
- Go to the Netflix page
- Go to the Blockbuster page
NOTE: Although Before viewing talks don't have spoilers, comments below MAY
(spoilers are allowed in comments when a Before viewing talk does not have a corresponding After viewing talk for discussing the film)