BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (PG-13)
4 stars out of 4
With a title that could have just as easily been a novel by William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Frances O'Connor or Thomas Wolfe, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is drenched in mystical southern wanderlust and told in an unapologetic, stark manner that paints life far below the Mason-Dixon Line as squalid and hopeless. At least that's how it begins.
Unless one is from or has lived in the South for an extended stretch of time, they know nothing of the stringent resolve of its inhabitants and the often understated breadth of their cunning, organic intellect. This film will simultaneously cement the horribly stereotypical views of our tiny corner of the globe while shattering others. It might also prompt many to smack themselves upside the head for being so patently presumptive and falsely superior.
"BOTSW" is a film that sneaks up on you like a sidewinder. You don't know how good it really is while you're watching it, but when it's done, you'll think you've just seen something made by Stanley Kubrick or Terrence Malick. It's all attitude, ambience and symbolism, but is delivered with a type of unpretentious earnestness and gut-bucket soul that will leave you pleasantly exhausted and spiritually capsized. The movie will rip your heart out and then gently place it back in a position you weren't expecting.
With a ton of impeccably thorough research put in prior to filming, the Northeastern-born co-writer and first-time feature director Benh Zeitlin sank himself deep into Gulf culture and took the practically unfathomable path of casting first-time/non-professional actors to perform his rough-hewed fable. Almost everything that could have gone wrong with this movie never materialized and it marks a rare instance in filmmaking where luck, spirit and karma utterly vanquished Murphy's Law.
Set on a fictional Louisiana island nicknamed "the Bathtub" by its inhabitants, "BOTSW" starts out like a not-too-terribly interesting documentary. Clad in underwear, rubber boots and sporting a wildly overlong, scruffy afro, the 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) trudges through the morning mud and slop shared by assorted near-starving farm animals. It takes about 30 minutes before we can reasonably assume that Hushpuppy is a girl.
Her stilted, disheveled hovel is about 50 feet away from a slightly larger one inhabited by her father Wink (Dwight Henry) and is connected by a rope. When Wink rises every morning, he tosses a freshly killed chicken on a makeshift grill and tugs on the rope, ringing a bell indicating breakfast is ready. Rarely has squalor, poverty and hard tack been so honestly depicted on film.
There is no mother, wife or girlfriend seen and when referred to by either Hushpuppy or Wink, we're never sure whether she's dead or alive. It is just one of many brilliant decisions on the part of the filmmakers to never over-detail the story, which forces the audience to not only pay close attention but to often reach their own conclusions. This is shorthand, minimalist storytelling at its most sublimely efficient and eerie, and is way harder to do than it might appear.
Trying to be both parents is a tall order for the gruff, uncouth Wink and his relationship with Hushpuppy is rocky at best. He barks orders at her and simply expects her to perform dangerous tasks that are far beyond the comprehension or capability of any female child (or male teen for that matter). His is a tough, jagged love and again it takes a long time for the writers to reveal Wink's ultimate motive. Although he's prickly and often behaves like a total lout, we can't help but like and actually respect Wink.
The arguable highlight of this richly textured morality play comes in the form of a reoccurring fantasy sequence that is everything "Where the Wild Things Are" tried be, but couldn't, and another that slyly reworks Homer's "The Odyssey."
By the time the movie reaches its heart-wrenchingly bittersweet climax, we're absolutely sure there will never be a hurdle too high for Hushpuppy to overcome. She's a warrior and an angel and embodies the kind of unflappable will and resolve all of us wish we could muster but few of us ever nudge into fruition.
Forget all of those comic book dudes in their tight silly suits; Hushpuppy is the most awe-inspiring cinematic hero of the summer. (Fox Searchlight)