Friday, July 27, 2012

Beast of the Southern Wild (June 26, 2012) (60)

Beasts of the Southern Wild, by first-time feature co-writer and director Behn Zeitlin, is much more of a portrait of an emotional moment and feeling than it is a narrative story that follows a character from one point in her life to another. It has the eerie lyricism of a Terrence Malick film (particularly Days of Heaven) as it examines the relationship between neorealism and magical realism that can coexist in a child's psyche.

Loosely described, the film tells the story of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), an 8-year-old girl being raised by her father, Wink (Dwight Henry) in a (fictional) area called the Bathtub in southern Louisiana, in the wilderness south of New Orleans. It seems in this near-post-apocalyptic time, the polar ice caps have melted and have flooded the low bayou. Residents of the Bathtub live a semi-amphibious lives jumping between boats, house trailers perched in high trees and houseboats. There are several dozen residents in this community, where they seem to live life in a non-linear, joyful way. There is a sense that somewhere north of them is civilization, continuing mostly as it seems for us today, while they down below try to avoid that world.

Hushpuppy and the other kids her age go to a makeshift school where their teacher Miss Bathsheeba (Gina Montana) teaches them they they "are all just meat". She tells them that they have to watch out for themselves because if they don't some other animal will come to eat them.

Hushpuppy's mother, it seems, has left in the years before, although it's never totally clear whether she actually walked away from the Bathtub or if she died and Wink just told the girl that her mother had "left". This concept is one of the first times we are faced with an oblique concept due to a mix of fantasy and reality in Hushpuppy's perception of the world. She is haunted by visions of massive beasts running roughshod over the land toward the Bathtub to eat them.

Throughout the film, Zeitlin interjects moments and scenes that don't totally follow in a narrative path, but add to the general feeling of happiness and innocence of the location. The film opens with a magnificent party, shot hand-held, that easily conveys the joy of the village and the community feeling of all the people. Later, there is a craw fish boil with singing and a wonderful feeling of warmth and support as Hushpuppy is taught how to open crabs by "beasting" them (ripping them) apart.

Zeitlin cleverly plays with New Orleans culture and recent history as he alludes to typical tropes from the area. One moment, above all others, is particularly powerful, as the Bathtub is flooded by a storm and the residents blow up the levee that separates the Bathtub from the mainland. When they do this, the water drains, like out of a tub, into the land above. This is a very deep and significant allusion to the common conspiracy theory that the US government blew the hold in the levees that flooded the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans in the days after Hurricane Katrina. Here it's the poor people (mostly black) who are flooding the richer, nicer areas north of them.

Stylistically, Zeitlin weaves a very interesting tale, where dream-like sequences of the wild beasts, in Hushpuppy's imagination, are cut in with more hard-nosed, brutal images of the living conditions of the people and their struggle to survive. Added to this are segments that seem to exist neither in a totally naturalistic place nor a totally fantastical place, as when Hushpuppy and some of her friends go out looking for her mother and end up in a floating brothel in the bayou where the girls dance with the prostitutes (whores in New Orleans, an allusion to several New Orleans movies and stories over the years). The story becomes a spectrum of reality and surreality, ranging in degree from one shot to the next. At one point the Bathtubbers are discovered by what seems to be FEMA workers and taken to a hospital. Suddenly everything is clean and made of plastic in right angles. It's both super-real (from our point of view) and incredibly uncanny (from Hushpuppy's point of view).

The cinematography by Ben Richardson is beautiful and dreamy. It seems to be shot mostly digitally, though that adds a quickness and naturalness to settings and situations. We see lens flares and sun spots as the hand-held camera pans around a dark room, lit only by the sunlight peeking through the cracks in the wooden shack wall. The music, by Dan Romer (the brother of a close friend of mine, full disclosure) and Zeitlin is ethereal and classical in a sense not normally seen in a small film like this. It is very evocative of Morricone's score for Days of Heaven, as well as the Saint-Saens "Carnival of the Animals"excerpt from the same movie.

This is an excellent first film that shows a true directoral voice and point of view. I appreciate that Zeitlin doesn't answer too many questions, but leaves us open to figure out the puzzle ourselves. As a snap-shot story, there is no tidy ending, only a slow fade out of the characters and action. This is a movie about dreams, and as such, is hard to nail down as meaning one thing or another. Yes, some of the imagery is a bit heavy-handed, though that too is the nature of dreams. At time this film is frightening, exuberant, dark, funny, sad and hopeful. This is a roller coaster of emotion and tone, but feels warm and very well made.

Stars: 4 of 4